Scope Creep vs. the Full Story

Ready for more introduction to business intelligence, through the lens of NFL football? My blog on BI and football last week prompted some fun conversations, including a theory (which can be turned into an interesting business question) from Rob, one of my old Microsoft colleagues. 

To recap, my original question was "Given a deficit of X points, how much time does an NFL team need for a reasonable chance of a comeback?" I was able to purchase a fantastic set of data from, and discovered something unexpected: from the 2000 season through Super Bowl LI, the team that scored first in any given game went on to win 65% of the time.

That surprisingly high statistic leads to other interesting questions, including a bit of a puzzle: if scoring first affords a strong edge, why does the team that wins the coin toss almost always elect to kickoff first in the first half?*

I'm not digging into that question quite yet, because Rob brought up that other interesting theory: the team that gets to 20 points first almost always wins. His question opens up a great conversation about scope creep in BI projects.

Look at every project manager's resume and you'll see "avoiding scope creep" listed as a primary skill.** BI managers live in fear of scope creep, mainly because of an associated phenomenon: people who add requirements during the execution of a project often forget that their additions contributed to the project failing to complete on time. The best defense against this, of course, is another of those great management skills, "setting proper expectations." A thorough project charter should clearly outline what's in scope and what isn't, and a major change should require stakeholder review and approval.

But an additional question can't always be dismissed as scope creep. My fifth rule of business intelligence is that each stakeholder has his or her own questions that must be strategically organized.*** Part of that organization is evaluation of the question. Does it belong in the project? If so, what's the priority, and how are resources impacted?

Since my NFL analysis hobby is blissfully free of stakeholders, I decided to take a diversion from my own questions and answer Rob's.**** 

First, I should mention that some time ago I migrated the original data (imported from .csv files to Access) to SQL Azure. When I started adding measures and dimensions to the data, I realized I'd much rather do it in SQL than VBA. Also, it gave me a chance to try out SQL Azure as a consumer. (And some day I'll post my critique of the migration process from Access to Azure.)

The question required some additional fields in the dataset. (DrUsual's Fourth Rule of Business Intelligence: the platform must evolve. This can apply to the data itself, the hosting environment, visualization capabilities, and much more.) For each game, I added fields to flag whether either team reached 20 points, whether the team that reached 20 first went on to win the game, how many minutes remained when 20 points were reached, and what the deficit was for the trailing team, when the other team hit the 20-point mark.

Time to pivot.

First conclusion: in a game where either team scores at least 20 points, the first team to reach 20 points wins the game 86% of the time. Bravo, Rob. However, we had an inkling this was true already, since the earlier analysis indicated that any lead is relatively hard to overcome. So, let's dive a bit deeper. What other conditions cause variance in the chance to win, despite having reached 20 points first?

The most impactful key driver (that I've found) is the trailing team's deficit.

  • If the trailing team is behind by 3 or less, the leading team has a 67% chance of winning.
  • If the trailing team is down by 7 to 10 points, that chance of winning leaps to 81%.
  • The trailing team needs two scores or more to catch up, 11-14 points, victory is 90% likely.
  • Reach 20 points with at least a 15 point lead, and it's pretty much game over -- you win 95% of the time.

I was also interested in the impact of game time remaining. This should be significant, right? The more time left, the better chance of a comeback. The outcome here is interesting, though. Check out the results:

  • Leading team hits 20 points with 46 to 55 minutes remaining: 90% victory.
  • Leading team hits 20 points with 31 to 45 minutes remaining: 87% victory.
  • Leading team hits 20 points with 16 to 30 minutes remaining: 84% victory.
  • Leading team hits 20 points with 15 minutes or less remaining: 88% victory.

In addition to the tight range, there's an interesting anomaly: your best chance of winning comes when you reach 20 points with the MOST time available for the other team to come back. Two conclusions here. First, time remaining isn't as impactful as the actual deficit. Second, a team that makes it to 20 points in the first quarter of the game is probably truly outclassing the opponent. The leading team has won 52 of 58 games where this has happened. 


The chart above shows a pivot of both time remaining and the deficit when one team reaches 20 points. I put this one together simply for an "eyeball check" -- scanning to see if anything interesting jumps out. One clear lesson: if you're going to let the other team jump to an early lead, make it a big lead. There are six instances of a team losing after reaching 20 points in the first 15 minutes. In five of those cases, they had at least a 15 point lead when reaching 20 points. We can probably label that the "Wake Up Call Phenomenon." 

(Incidentally, it was Buffalo that choked in two of these five games, giving up 21 point leads each time. In 2011 they ended up losing 49 to 21, via another phenomenon we'll simply call, "Tom Brady Was Here.")

And in case you're wondering about the single instance of a team overcoming a deficit of more than 15 points when the opposition reached 20 point mark with less than 15 minutes to go -- that was the St. Louis Rams, week 17 of 2002 versus San Francisco. The 49ers made it 20-3 with 14 minutes remaining, and the Rams managed four touchdowns in that last quarter, including a defensive TD on a fumble recovery. 

Ah, sports. You make numbers so much fun.

* The most common theory is amazingly common -- that there's an even greater advantage to scoring last in the first half, then scoring on the opening drive of the second half. I'll explore that in another blog.

** I'm surprised it's not a standard skill on LinkedIn. Then again, a lot of really good skills are missing from LinkedIn's list, including "Not wasting time," "Taking accountability," and "Acting like a grownup."  

*** I know, in the previous blog I gave you my first rule, and in this one I'm giving you my fifth and fourth. It's a narrative, not a recipe.

**** After all, knowledge for knowledge's sake is worthwhile, but conversations are more fun.

The First Rule of Business Intelligence

A bit of an advance apology; you're going to have to read on a bit to get to the actual rule. This is a blog, not a text book, so you don't get to read the title, skim the subheadings, and call it a day. Also, I'll get back to societal problems and the way we treat people with special needs in a few days. For now I want to post some topics that I've had in the works for a while* but haven't gotten to yet.

Super Bowls 51 and 52 were both great games, for totally different reasons.** For those who don't remember (or don't follow football***) during Super Bowl 51 the Patriots were down by 28 to 3 with only eight and a half minutes left in the third quarter. They came back to tie the game, then win in overtime.

That made me wonder: for any given deficit in a football game, how much time is needed for a team to have a reasonable shot at a comeback victory? To the Business Intelligence cave!****

Football Chart.png

First stop: I obtained an awesome data set, play-by-play data for every NFL game (including playoff games) from the 2000 season through Super Bowl LI. And I do mean play-by-play. What happened in the play on both offense and defense, plus environmental data, and more. 

Using Access and Excel, I added some measures and slicers to the main data, then set out to plot the relationship between deficits, comeback wins, and time. The primary question: given a deficit of X score, how much time is needed for the team that's behind to have at least a 50% chance of winning?

I pictured a result showing something like, "A team behind by 3 only needs 5 minutes in the game, a team behind by 10 generally needs 12 minutes, etc." However, the results quickly exemplified one of the first rules of business intelligence: your first business question is probably not the right business question.

Why the focus change? According to the pivot, 65% of teams that scored first went on to win the game. And even more significantly, if that first score is a touchdown, the win percentage jumped to a whopping 70%.

That's seriously heavy information. Of course, the first thing I did was re-check the data, make sure I hadn't made any mistakes with calculated fields. Nope. Sure looks like a team that starts with the lead has a serious advantage.

That fact changes the priority of my business question. I'm no longer concerned with the time needed to overcome a particular deficit -- I'm more concerned about the importance of the first score, and of making that score a touchdown. 

The unexpected information also raises a new business question: if scoring first is so significant, why does the team who wins the coin toss almost always elect to kick first? Is it because the entire NFL grossly misunderstands their own statistics? (Don't be so quick to scoff that possibility -- go read Moneyball.)

Or is it because the situation is too complex to be explained by a single statistic? That's more likely the answer, and the subject of my next BI-related blog.


* Sure, you might consider a year a bit more than "a while," but...

** Despite the Minnesota Vikings not being in Super bowl 52, as they should have been. Sorry, Tim VandeSteeg, it was a good try!

*** Yes, I said, "football." You know, a game characterized by an oblong goal, very large men, and not being rugby. The round-ball game played with no hands is called "soccer," Europe.

**** Okay, BI isn't really that exciting. We work hard, but we rarely literally spring into action, and we don't have theme music. 

Every Word Matters

Amid all the postings, blogs, and comments about Bobby Budenbender's mocking of special needs people (not to mention the even more virulent reaction to his not-really-an-apology-but-please-keep-buying-clothing-from-me video) I saw a good question: why does it matter that one piece of trash (and his wife) broadcast such behavior? 

Here's why.

Every time you display a behavior, whether the audience is one person or a thousand, you send the message that that behavior is acceptable. The most powerful phenomenon in the universe isn't the strong nuclear force, and despite what Albert Einstein said, it's not compound interest. It's repetition. And compounding* repetition is proliferation. Five people doing something once each is usually more convincing that one person doing it five times.

Here's an example: long, long ago in my corporate career, a phone support person discovered that when he had a less than stellar call with a customer, he could simply change the last digit of the customer's phone number in the CMS, and our survey company wouldn't be able to contact that customer for feedback. One person tried this, got comfortable when he wasn't caught, and started doing it regularly. 

Lo and behold, he mentioned it to a colleague. And then to another. Soon, almost the entire team was doing it -- and then the next team. The behavior spread teams located in two other states. By the time the leadership team discovered the phenomenon, over 100 professional, intelligent people had adopted a clearly bad behavior and turned it into institutional practice. How did they come to feel this was acceptable? "Because everyone else is doing it."**


Think of the way a landslide occurs on a mountain. For thousands of years the mountain appears to be solid granite, then poof -- half of it crumbles, causing a lot of commotion, and in the worst case scenario, death and destruction. The mountain didn't fall spontaneously, though. Natural erosion and (in some cases) manmade forces chipped away at the structure for a long time. Each time a small piece falls away, the void that's left weakens the surrounding area, until cracks finally appear, the tipping point is reached, and the whole thing shatters.

Whether it's individual or societal, morality works the same way. Nobody wakes up one morning and says consciously, "I've decided to start a new life as a homophobe!" Or a racist, or a misogynist, or someone who denigrates retarded people.*** People adopt what they're exposed to frequently, and you don't have to weak-willed or highly impressionable to do it. Even the smartest people succumb to believing something is acceptable simply because so many other people feel the same way.

Need more examples? Go to any news story on Yahoo and read the comments. One story should be sufficient to find dozens of examples of public comments that would have appalled a newspaper reader in the 1980s or 1990s. Once the trolling momentum starts, it accelerates at a geometric pace, because each example validates the acceptability of the sentiment. This particular problem has become so rampant that many online news sources have simply disabled user comments altogether.

And that's why LuLaRoe's profit-protecting stance on the Budenbender's actions is inexcusable. By soft-shoeing the issue and excusing a gross display of insensitivity, LuLaRoe condones it. There's no neutral stance here; there is no context under which Budenbender's little act is acceptable -- except, apparently, if you're a LuLaRoe top seller.

Yes, everything you do or say matters. Whether reinforcing your own beliefs or contributing to others, intentional or not, every action contributes to the next, for better or for worse. And in an age when half the world witnesses your every action live and in person, your ability to have either a positive or negative impact on others is pretty damned strong.

* Yay, Einstein!

** I'm sure this philosophy brought a lot of comfort to each person who lost his job, along with all his friends.

*** I call them "misanthropes," but some people probably feel that's too broad of a term. I like "troglodytes," too, but that's a bit too Dungeons and Dragony for some. I could really use an etymologist here.

LuLaRoe: Long on Tights, Short on Values

Last month, LuLaRoe "consultants" Taya and Robert Budenbender hosted a live broadcast LuLaRoe sales party. After some technical difficulties, Mr. Budenbender decided to lighten the moment by pretending to be retarded. He adopts the quintessential slow, shouting voice, and proclaims, "My name is Robert and I'm special! My name is Robert and I'm really special!" Meanwhile, a woman in the background (presumably Taya Budenbender) cackles as if this is the funniest thing since Gallagher smashed a watermelon. 

You can find the video on YouTube if you like. I won't post a link to it. 

In the half-assed "apology" video later that day, the Budenbender's trot out a relative with Down Syndrome to use as a prop, and Mr. Budenbender quickly zeroes in on the problem: apparently this whole mess was caused by people who chose to share the video in places where "not nice people" and "people who get offended" hang out. Worse, all these mean people sent poor Bobby Budenbender mean messages, after they took his actions out of context!

Whatever. His "apology" just gets worse from there, including a repetition of the "this should have just stayed in the family" theme.

My daughter, Kelsey, in the last LuLaRoe tights we'll ever buy.

My daughter, Kelsey, in the last LuLaRoe tights we'll ever buy.

It gets worse. LuLaRoe's response is full of non-committal, unapologetic themes as well. It stresses that the retailers are independent, that Budenbender has "agreed to use the incident as a learning experience," and that LuLaRoe is going to "redouble" their sensitivity and tolerance training and policies. (Anyone know what you get when you double zero?) The sum total of LuLaRoe's response is one weak statement to distance themselves from the problem, without losing the income generated by the BudenBenders.

Every company touts its core values, whether packaging them as a mission to the public, treatment of their employees, contribution to the environment, whatever. And just like individual people, companies are often quite happy to use those "values" as lip-service PR tools, rather than living guidance.

Ironically, you can see LuLaRoe's application of values in part of their statement: "...joined with our commitment not to fight intolerance with eradication..." Apparently LuLaRoe is worried about "eradicating" the Budenbender's business -- i.e., LuLaRoe's profit. 

I'd prefer to eradicate people's apparent belief that making fun of the retarded is acceptable.

One more thing, DeAnne and Mark Stidham! Your statement references "tolerance," or touting your great commitment to "fighting intolerance." Let me explain something to you: decent people don't "tolerate" those with special needs. We love them and care for them, because (wait for it, shocking revelation to come) they're people. No toleration is required.

For a more appropriate example of toleration, we'll just note that people are still buying your tights and dresses, and some are probably still buying from the Budenbenders. I guess there'll always be customers willing to tolerate hateful, disgusting "consultants" and the greedy companies who employ them. 


Goodbye, Tim VandeSteeg

Irony, I guess. A half-written blog sits in my Draft folder right now; I was going to return to blogging this week with a message about how happy I am to be working with Sergio Valenzuela of Silver Phoenix Productions on a film, The Hero At The End Of The Day. Instead, I'm posting some of my memories of the man who brought Sergio and I together, Tim VandeSteeg. 

Tim passed away this week. "Unexpectedly" would be ridiculous understatement. Both Sergio and I spoke with him within the past week, and beyond a sprained ankle, nothing seemed to be amiss. As usual, Tim was spending his time between two of his biggest passions: upcoming film projects, and hanging out with his godson. At 46, Tim was healthy, full of energy, and excited about life. 

A few people have guessed that something went wrong with his heart, but it's almost unthinkable -- Tim was nothing BUT heart. Tim chose a career in a tough industry, with no guarantees, and he refused to even consider giving up. No matter the challenges, frustrations, or setbacks, Tim followed his passion with determination matched only by his on-screen idol, Rocky Balboa.*

Summer, 2001: I was on a guys' trip out in Lubbock, Texas, and got a call. "Hi, my name's Tim, and I'm a filmmaker. I loved the short script you posted on American Zoetrope; would you be interested in writing a feature about..." Tim's enthusiasm and confidence weren't just contagious; the man could start an epidemic of optimism. 

Tim  did all he could to help his friends and collaborators find success. He celebrated everything with you, and was genuinely happy for you. I remember telling him that I'd just landed a writing gig with another producer and hearing, "OhMyGodDudeThatsSoAwesome." Just like that. One word, no breath, but 100 decibels of heartfelt happiness on my behalf. 


Writing with Tim was fun. Sometimes frustrating**, but always fun. Tim didn't like to write with words -- he described feelings, made references to other films, and described the visual aspects of scenes he envisioned. I'd throw out some existing movie scenes to get us on the same page. "You mean like the pursuit in Butch Cassidy? Or maybe the creature in It Follows?" You could tell when that same page was found because Tim's voice would almost literally BOOM. "Yes! That's what I want!"

March, 2009: I was on a work trip in Seattle the night My Run was released to theaters. A bunch of my co-workers went with me to the Bella Bottega theater, and I still remember how great it felt to see my name in the credits on the big screen for the first time. There should be a note attached to that memory: "This moment brought to you by Tim VandeSteeg."

Tim worked hard, and the breadth of his knowledge was amazing. I visited while he was shooting Fall Into Me, and it was the first time I'd seen any part of film production beyond my own screenwriting. Tim showed me his shooting plan, walked me through the different teams and departments, gave me an overview of planning for an outdoor scene, talked about municipal code and permits, putting together a budget -- everything. He had great vision for his projects, but his talent certainly didn't stop at the envisioning stage. He took his ideas from vision to completion, and had fun doing it.


Once Tim was standing in line at Starbuck's while we were on the phone, trying to fine-tune a logline. He asked me to wait a second, and I heard him repeat the logline I'd just provided to someone else. He came back on the phone and said, "She loved it, let's go with that." I asked who he was with; was there some other movie producer, writer, someone with him? Nope. It was a random woman in line behind him. He just asked her if she thought she'd like to see a movie with that particular summary. Confidence, friendliness, personality -- Tim had all of the above.

December, 2017: Tim left me messages*** saying "Call me, fantastic news!" He and I had been working hard on converting Epitaph to a TV series proposal. Typical of Tim, he'd augmented my writing with an awesome slideshow, covering both the story and the highlights of the potential business side. He'd also made some great contacts for potential production partners. (You could say that Tim was a master of networking. I'd say Tim was friends with everyone.) 

I called him back, getting excited myself, thinking that perhaps he's landed the quintessential big break. Sure enough, Tim had just heard back from the producer: "he's getting ready to read it!"

Wait. That's the big news? The producer is getting ready to read our proposal?


And it was -- because Tim's enthusiasm, delight, and optimism were amazingly motivational. I poked fun at him a little for being so over the top about a pretty minor development, but in the following week, I wrote more than I had in the past six months.

That was Tim. He had his dream, and he didn't allow anything or anyone to stop him pursuing it, but he was more than happy to bring you along. He was a good guy, and I miss him already. 

* Tim and I never resolved our argument about which is the best sports movie ever made, Rocky or The Natural. We agreed to disagree by him putting The Natural as #2 and me doing the same for Rocky. 

** We worked together for a long, long time on a western/horror screenplay, Epitaph. After seven complete drafts, Tim had a suggestion: what if we took out one of the four major characters? My tirade ensued, but typical of Tim, he kept a good humor about it, closing off the conversation with something like, "Okay, maybe that wasn't such a great idea."

*** Tim's enthusiasm pushed technology to its limits. When he was really psyched up about a positive development, he'd call, leave a voice mail, send a text message, send an email, leave a message on FaceBook, and send a message via FaceBook Messenger. I fully expected that some day I'd call him back and realize he was already standing on my front porch.

Music, Mushroom, and Re-Purposing the Caves

Re-purposing is important. The more use we get from something, the less waste we produce, right? That's why there's an old whirlpool bathtub in my backyard. When we remodeled the bathroom, we discovered that there's not a lot you can do with a fifteen year old bathtub. Having enjoyed The Martian so much, I decided to use the bathtub as a potato-growing container.* Works perfectly, too. The bottom is certainly impervious to weeds and invasive plants, it's shaped to funnel water out, and of course, has a drain.**


During our summer trip to London I learned that Europe is all about re-purposing. One of my favorite examples is Chislehurst Caves, just a short train ride southeast of London. 

The caves are actually a 21 or 22 mile set of tunnels, and are completely man-made. The first of the tunnels was begun sometime back around the signing of the Magna Carta.*** Local residents dug into the ground to extract chalk and flint, and beforeyou knew it...there was a whole lotta excavated space.

Fast forward to the 1900s. In between, the locals were pretty straightforward thinkers: dig the chalk, dig the flint, have a pint, repeat. However, during World War I, the British Army decided the caves were an excellent place to store ammunition and explosives. Lots and lots of ammunition and explosives. I don't recall the exact numbers, but let's just say that Chislehurst was temporarily the Wal-Mart of stuff that blows up.

Between WWI and WWII the caves were turned to a more peaceful pursuit -- mushroom farming! Makes sense, right? Mushrooms love caves. 

But World War II is the time period for which the Chislehurst Caves might be most famous. Britons seeking shelter from air raids took to the caves. Eventually, as many as 15,000 people had taken up residence. Electricity was run, and engineering work was undertaken to keep air flowing and temperatures down. Keep in mind, these are caves. They're typically much cooler than ground temperatures, but with so many people living in them, the temperature of the caves rose dramatically. I believe our guide mentioned the temp rising to nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit, until improved air circulation was hastily engineered, and after the war it took around 20 years for temperatures to fall back to normal.


The amount of organization that took place in the caves is incredible. The temporary residents had a post office, chapels, stores. Of course, bunk assignment alone was a major undertaking, considering the numbers involved. 

After WWII the caves became an entertainment venue. Jimi Hendrix performed there, as well as Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and if I remember correctly, the Stones. Our guide even played the drums in one cave while we listened from farther down the passage. He mentioned that the music had to be shut down, ironically, not because the music itself was too loud -- as residential areas closed in on the cave entrance, the local population found that people exiting the caves in the wee hours of the night were annoying.

Some things never change.

The caves have also been used for TV and film production. At least one Dr. Who episode filmed there, and the caves have shown up on documentary programs. The site is also used for live-action fantasy pastimes as well; when we were visiting, a large group of SCA or LARP folks were there for an event.

Without a doubt, Chislehurst Caves was one of my favorite stops on our London trip. It was a nice train ride from central London, a very enjoyable walk around the village, and something great to see. Since the caves don't show up at the top of every tourist search for London attractions, we're fortunate to have stumbled upon them, but I highly recommend making time to stop in if you're in the vicinity. And don't forget your lantern.

* It would have been more appropriate, perhaps, to plant my Martian potatoes in a toilet, but a) we didn't have a toilet to discard and b) you can grow more potatoes in a bathtub.

** When you repurpose a bathtub for growing plants, it's important to keep plants actually growing in there. Otherwise, you just appear to be the slob who threw an old bathtub out into his yard. 

*** Look it up. You're on the Internet, for crying out loud.


5 More k, Every Day

On Saturday I ran in another organized 5k.* This one was a fundraiser for a great organization, Ability Connection. It's an awesome organization. Simply put, they drive community acceptance, support, and inclusion of children and adults with special needs. A little more wordy: they help people with disabilities live as independently as possible at home, or within a community. They provide transportation, manage group homes, and support companion living. They offer vocational training, academic training, health and fitness programs, and independent living skills training. There's a lot more, but maybe I'll write more about Ability Connection later; today I planned to talk about a runner.

This particular race was an "out and back." Just like it sounds, you run half the distance in one direction, then turn around and return along the same path. I loved the format -- you get to see all the other runners face to face at some point, and people would smile, wave, and be very supportive of each other, whether they were front of the pack or back.

5K Number.jpg

One woman in particular stood out to me. I think she was close to my age, and she had a late-teen or young adult man (I assume her son) in a racing wheelchair; it looked like a very large jogging stroller.** This woman pushed her son the entire 5,000 meters -- up hills, through mud and standing water, across the crappy, temporary trail where the nice pavement was under repair, everywhere. I saw a lot of them because despite her extra burden, she was ahead of me most of the way.***

I can't think of a better visual example of what it's like to be the parent of someone with special needs. Sometimes the tasks are enormous -- surgery, fighting for a place in a school system, trying to find the money needed for your child to live comfortably. Many days it's more mundane -- repeating an OT or PT routine for the thousandth time, for example, or washing the sheets for the fifth time this week, or feeding the child who can't physically feed him- or herself.

Whatever the situation is, every day is another 5k, and you don't have the option to stop running, pushing, and carrying.

It's exhausting. But like I said, you can't just stop. One thing you can count on for most significant disabilities is that there's no magic bullet -- there's no day coming that your child doesn't have Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, Turner syndrome, muscular dystrophy. You won't hear the doctor say, "He's cured; you can stop running now." But you can get support from other people and get a breather every once in a while.

Thanks for a great event, Ability Connection, and thanks for everything you do to help people keep running.

* I'm going to keep running in these until I'm able to pin my number to my shirt in less than fifteen minutes. The difficulty I have in pinning that thing on without bunching up the fabric or displaying the number at a 45 degree angle is ridiculous.

** I'm not posting a picture because I didn't get to meet this family and haven't asked their permission. Just picture their awesomeness in your head.

*** Yeah. I'm not a fast runner.

Off the Beaten Path

During our adventure trip this summer, MD and I really chose our route on a whim more than any previous year. The only destination we had locked in from the start was Denver; we made plans to visit a friend there for a couple of days, but beyond that...we just knew we had to be back before the school year started.*

Hence, we wandered our way through New Mexico, up to Denver, across Colorado to Utah, through about fifty thousand miles of national park land, into Las Vegas, down to Arizona, and eventually back into New Mexico and Texas. We did some hiking, a lot of sight seeing, went fishing, checked out a few historical markers, and watched Cirque du Soleil.**

We changed the route on the fly pretty regularly, and one of our favorite diversions was the trip back into New Mexico. We were heading east on I-40, and at the last minute we decided to divert south, along the Arizona/New Mexico border, then cut into New Mexico on old Highway 60.

First fun thing we stumbled upon: Red Hill! It's a ghost town, the site of a gold rush (that turned out to be a total gold bust) in the 1800s. This is a remote place -- up in the mountains, lush forest where the volcanic field has enriched the soil. Remote enough that the cows come sprinting over as you drive by, probably hoping you'll stop and talk for a few minutes.

After we passed through the Cibola National Forest (and a wickedly cool lightning storm) we emerged in a high plateau. We saw something odd on the horizon -- in fact, we saw 27 odd somethings. 


Turns out we'd stumbled into the Very Large Array. Coincidentally, the VLA has been on our list of "stuff we'd like to visit"*** for a couple of years. In case your interferometers, each antenna in the Very Large Array is 75 feet tall, and they're mounted on railroad tracks; the antennae can be moved around to the best configuration for the time of year, direction of target, and whether you're listening to Klingon or Vulcan.

We got some great gawking in before moving on to Magdalena. We were thinking about diverting from there to Kelly****, but realized that we'd have to keep moving if we wanted to make Ruidoso by dark. 

But we got to see the Very Large Array, on a totally unplanned side route. That might be the best thing about having kids -- we've got all manner of plans and ideas of where we'd like to end up, but when we make it a point to take the foot off the accelerator and enjoy the side roads, we stumble upon all sorts of awesome things.

* Turns out if your kid doesn't show up for school, the school system notifies various government agencies that you're a bad parent. Who'd'a thunk it?

** I feel slightly guilty about munching on popcorn and drinking a Coke while people with the finest physiques in the world do unbelievable physical feats for my entertainment, but hey, I paid for my ticket.

*** The "stuff we'd like to visit" list is in our family OneNote, right before "correct temperatures for each 3D printer filament" and just after "planting times for tubers."

*** Yeah, we stop at a lot of ghost towns. We're also suckers for historical markers, Mystery Spots, drive-in movie theaters, and any billboard that claims we won't believe our eyes.

Do You Need More Boss?

During my summer travels I spent a couple of days with Abacus, and as always with Abacus, many interesting topics came up.* One such subject: Bruce Springsteen. I am, of course, a devoted Springsteen fan.** Abacus is familiar with and a fan of some of Mr. Springsteen's catalog. Turns out that Abacus is mostly familiar with The Boss's massive chart hits, which isn't surprising -- considering that he has 18 singles that peaked in Billboard's Top 40, it's easy to have heard a bunch o' Boss on the radio while hardly penetrating his ~300 song catalog.

Asbury Park.JPG

Somehow we came up with the idea that I should write a list of "Springsteen Songs You Should Listen To For More Depth," or something like that. (I just remember there were a lot of capital letters.) Hence, the following list.

Most Springsteen fans and many 80's general music fans will probably say, "Hold the phone. These aren't obscure songs at all," but that's okay. I classify this list as songs that you may have heard on the radio (or should have seen on MTV) but didn't hear nearly as often as Hungry Heart, Dancing in the Dark, and Born in the U.S.A.

  1. Girls In Their Summer Clothes. This may be my favorite Springsteen song. It's from the album Magic, 2007. As poetry goes, the lyrics are very concrete imagery, about a guy who realizes that he's fairly far through life, is still working uphill to be successful with his business and romance, but is hanging on to some optimism.*** It's a beautiful song, with excellent music, even better lyrics, and a lot of feeling. I'm going to keep hitting Springsteen concerts until I hear it live.
  2. For You. For this one to be on your radar, you have be a) a Springsteen fan, b) around in the early 70's when it was a staple, or c) reading this list. You may have heard the electronified Manfred Mann version.**** This song must be one of the reasons critics hailed Bruce's talent as a poet early in his career. (But please don't use the "he's the next Bob Dylan" comparison. He wasn't the next Bob Dylan, he was the first Bruce Springsteen.)
  3. No Surrender. How do you make an awesome song somewhat obscure? By including it on the album Born in the U.S.A. If No Surrender had been on a less successful album, it might have been a bigger radio hit. However, my theory is that the massive Born overload kept No Surrender from getting more airplay -- there were already a half dozen other songs popping up once per hour on FM stations nationwide. 
  4. Bobby Jean. It goes hand in hand with No Surrender. Both songs evoke the memories of your best childhood friends, with Bobby Jean being a bit more on the bittersweet side -- the friend in this case is gone, seeking his/her way elsewhere, and the narrator is hopeful that one day they'll talk again. If John Irving novels had soundtracks, Bobby Jean would be one of the first songs listed.
  5. My Lucky Day. This one's from Working on a Dream, in 2009. Many Springsteen songs are about hope. (Yes, many are about cars, too, but hope is also a prevalent theme.) This is a favorite in the hope category. It's very specific: things really suck, but because I have you, I have reason to hope. 
  6. Drive All Night. Some of my Boss-fan friends will roll their eyes that I included this ballad from The River, and sure, it's a little sappy, but I think it's pretty awesomely sappy. Like My Lucky Day, the theme is pretty direct and concrete: the subject of the lyrics is the only person who matters in the singer's world, and you can easily replace "sappiness" with "devotion" if you give it a chance.
  7. Santa Claus is Comin' To Town. Oh, yeah. It's hands-down my favorite rock Christmas song. Besides being a great version of the song, it was the first song my youngest daughter ever requested in the car. She heard it once, and for the next two years asked me to play it every time we got in the car. During the song someone "ho-ho-ho's" a few times in the background; I'm pretty sure it's Clarence Clemens. However, my daughter was convinced it was Santa Claus himself, and she wanted to hear it over and over again. For someone who loves music, that bonding experience with your kid is priceless. 

There you go -- seven slightly lesser known Springsteen songs for you to start your music appreciation lesson. Give these in a try, and next time I blog about The Boss, I'll reach a lot deeper into the catalog and share some more recommendations.

*Sure, anyone in the vicinity is probably bored to tears listening to what we find interesting, but if you choose to hang out in said vicinity, you get whatever we're serving up. We don't write custom content for non-paying audiences, you know.

**After all, I'm reasonably civilized, and I like good music.

*** My interpretation. I haven't finished Springsteen's autobiography yet, and if he goes into detail about Girls... I haven't gotten to that part. Also, he's never called me to discuss the song, but I'm keeping the phone lines clear, just in case.

**** Trivia time! Name three Manfred Mann covers of Springsteen songs!  (For You, Blinded By The Light, Spirit in the Night.)

My European Education

By which I mean, "We vacationed in Europe." But first, yet another apology -- back in June I may have hinted (or said outright) that I was going to start catching up on blog content. Apparently I took the summer off. So,'s nice to see you all again.

Canterbury Buttress.jpg

Sure, the trip to Europe was vacation, but there were plenty of fun learning experiences, which I'm happy to share with you. You're welcome.

For this first return blog, I thought I'd focus on buttresses. Like many people, I always assumed the "flying buttress" was a professional wrestling move, or that weird Airlander 10 ship built by those wacky Brits a few years back.  Turns out that "flying buttress" is actually an architectural term. Go figure.

So, what's a regular, run-of-the-mill buttress?* Check out the photo I took, above, of Canterbury Cathedral. See those vertical ridges along the walls? That's right: buttresses. Pretty simple concept; the roof extends a lateral force against the walls, which effectively makes them push outward. The buttress is very heavy and sunk into the ground, and it pushes back.

But a FLYING buttress? Is this some sort of futuristic, levitating buttress, defying gravity itself while pushing back against the roof?** Not exactly. The flying buttress simply isn't attached directly to the wall. The stone pier stands off at a distance, and is connected to the wall by a span from the top of the pier to the top of the wall. With the buttress doing its buttressing from afar, the architect is free to use more of the wall decoratively, with windows and gargoyles and such.

Flying Buttress.jpg

Of course, you can also put gargoyles on a flying buttress if you like. I'm not the kind of guy who gets pushy about where you put your gargoyles.***

The flying buttress has been around for a really long time, but apparently hit its peak of popularity during the Gothic period of architecture. I'm not very up to date on my architectural history, but I'm pretty sure that the Gothic period precedes the classic era and disco.

So, there you have it. Flying buttresses. We saw a lot of cool things in London**** and had a great time, so expect more blogs from the trip. And when you impress your friends with your knowledge of buttresses, give me a little mental thumbs-up.

* I'm so glad you asked.

** If architecture involved more monoliths, megaliths, and buttresses that literally levitated, I guarantee there'd be more architectural students in universities today. 

*** Now I feel like I should 3D print some gargoyles for my office.

**** I even got a picture of Baker Street. Sad that Gerry Rafferty departed so early; he was one talented guy.

Annual Day of Reflection

For eight years now I've had a habit on my birthday. I've taken the day off of work, or the Friday before if my birthday happens to fall on the weekend, and blocked the time on my work calendar as "Jeff's Annual Day of Reflection." It's only partly a joke; I actually did spend a good portion of the time reviewing what I'd done in the past year and thinking about what I wanted to do in the next year. My ADoR usually also involved a movie, golf, or a drive out to see some obscure Texas landmark.

This year was different, because I had no job to take off from. Although my work logistics for the past decade have been extremely flexible, there's nothing like the flexibility of not having a job at all.* Given that every day can easily be a day off, taking "time away" for the Annual Day of Reflection just didn't seem all that special.**

My birthday fell on a Saturday this year, and I realized a week before that the Honor Connor 5k run was scheduled for that day. One impulse sign-up later…

I've never run in an organized event. About six years ago I was training with friends from work to run a half marathon, but I broke my foot and never ran the event. Last fall I started running again seriously; from September through the end of January I ran at least five times per week. After January I let the layoff news from work derail my exercise; I didn't run again until, well…the week before the 5k.

In case preparation could make up for practice, I read the "How to Run Your First 5k" page. I picked up some really solid pointers. Don't wear the souvenirrace t-shirt in the race itself. Your number goes on the front of your shirt, not the back, and not on your leg. If you're not one of the competitive runners, line up toward the middle or back, so those who are really racing don't have to work their way around you.

Race day. There are more than 3000 participants and I'm adrift in a sea of race day, souvenir t-shirts. Okay, it's a fun run, and a memorial event, so that makes sense. Maybe I should have worn mine, instead of the sweat-wicking, super-breathable, space-age high-tech amazifying makes-you-look-better-run-faster-and-dance-smoother running shirt that I normally use for, well, running. Mindful of the true competitors in the crowd, I line up about halfway into the pack.

When the horn sounded I started shuffling toward the mats which activate your race sensor. That part is another cool buildup; you slowly pick up the pace as you get closer to the line and people in front of you disperse. Cross the line -- and I'm stymied. Stuck immediately behind two women, walking side by side, chatting away as they push their strollers.

And one's a double stroller.

For the first two or three hundred meters I dodged my way through a horde of people walking. People with strollers, people with their kids on razor boards…at one point I'm pretty sure I struggled my way around a set of conjoined sextuplets.  I probably burned more energy on crazy Ivans in the first half mile than the rest of the race, looking like Marion Barber running twenty lateral yards for every yard of progress downfield.

I eventually broke free of the pack, though, and spend about 4.5k trying to catch up with a few of those serious runners. I did make it; I ran the entire way, actually made a time that I was happy with, and didn't have a heart attack. I think I can call that a good day.

*Of course, not having work AND not having money would put a real damper on the whole flexibility thing, but I'm not going to get into that. This isn't an economics class, you know.

**No, I haven't been watching Netflix and playing Heroes of Might and Magic III*** for four solid months. I've been working, but since all my efforts are entrepreneurial, I don't have to coordinate with a team or manager to be away. If you've been there, you get it.

***I admit, I have played a lot more Heroes of Might and Magic than I should have in the past few months…and I may have binge watched "West World."

Technology - Screwing Me Up Faster and Easier

First, a kinda apology for the blog hiatus. I've had two vacations* in the past month, plus general busy-ness with various "Is this what I'm going to do for my next job?" projects, and I just haven't taken the time to blog. I've been writing during that time, though, so I should have a veritable slew of blogs coming out soon. Fear not, my three loyal readers, there's more to come.

Maybe I should get a smaller music device...

Maybe I should get a smaller music device...

I ran three miles this morning to sweat out some of last night's Johnnie Walker, and as I've mentioned before, I don't run without music. Running without music would be exercising, and since exercise is strenuous and tiring, I try to avoid it. My current Spotify playlist for running is "Dr. Usual's 5k Run." I know, very original. The song selection is important. Each song has a good tempo for my 5k running pace, and most have a running theme.**

Just over one mile in, Spotify jumped to Men At Work's, "Who Can It Be Now?" Now, I like Men At Work, but I know Colin Hay and friends are not on my running playlist. Somehow, Spotify had switched to radio mode, whereby deep data analysis, alchemy, and wild guessing, it attempts to serve up music I might like.

You know what music I'd like during my 5k run? That's right -- my 5k running playlist.

I fumbled around at the Spotify controls while trying to keep pace. Pace and heart rate are important. I definitely can't stop or walk. It takes about two walking strides for my legs to say, "Hell yeah, looks like we're done here! Let's go sit in front of the computer for a few hours!" So, while running at a consistent 165 BPM, watching for cars, and avoiding the massive Texas drains where Pennywise the Clown hangs out, I had to get Spotify out of radio mode and back to my playlist.

Mission accomplished -- or so I thought. Though the playlist was back up and running, my ear buds* were silent. While bumbling my way through the Spotify menus I apparently switched the playback device from "This iPhone" to "Dr's Tap." That's right, the Amazon Tap, sitting on my desk back at home. I'm sure my wife and daughter were delighted with Saga's "On The Loose" suddenly blasting from my vacant office.

I diverted into the park, where I at least didn't have to worry about traffic, and got my devices sorted out, then enj-- finished the run without any more technological assistance.

The next step in my fitness regimen is pretty obvious.  Design a new skin for Spotify with three and only two buttons: "Volume Up," and "Call 911." Make a note, Spotify. This stuff doesn't have to be complicated.

*How does one have a vacation when one is unemployed? Let me explain. I scheduled these trips before Microsoft decided to replace me and my team with outsourcers on the other side of the world. Therefore, on my calendar they're both still referred to as "vacation." Travel scheduled AFTER my former manager replaced us with contractors from his former company is referred to simply as "travel." See? Easy definitions.

**Here's a link to the Spotify playlist. Get running.

***That's right, ear buds. Screw you, Apple, I'm not paying for your Air Buds. Headphones shouldn't cost as much as a damned phone. Especially when there's a chance they'll fall out of my ears and roll down there with Pennywise.

Man, Motion, and More Music

Yesterday I mentioned in a tweet that John Parr's Man In Motion was on my running play list.  That song has been on my running list for a long time; besides the obvious theme, it's got a good beat for my stride length.  Also, I've loved the St. Elmo's Fire soundtrack since it came out in 1985.  After sending that tweet, though, I was a bit embarrassed* to realize that the only other John Parr song I could name was Naughty Naughty

(At one point during game development we played with the idea of adding music and soundtrack elements to Film Tycoons, but ultimately took that out; we just weren't finding a way to fit it into the game flow.  We might revisit that in future editions, since movie soundtracks account for some of the best music in the world.)

In fact, there were a number of artists with great songs on the St. Elmo's Fire soundtrack, a few of those artists were pretty much unknown to me beyond their soundtrack contribution.  Did some of them record one and only one song before moving on to a career as a database analyst somewhere?  Or have they had decade-spanning, prolific careers, and just somehow stayed under the collective radar of my demographic, geography, or social group?  I started out with a hypotheses that John Parr is similar to Cliff Richard** in that both are fantastic artists whose major body of work has managed to escape the ear of 40-something guys in Texas. 

Research time, starting with one of my favorite tools, Spotify.

Bingo.  To say "Parr is prolific" is somewhat akin to mentioning "water is wet."  But Spotify neatly summarizes (and unfortunately, perpetuates) the "American audience" versus "non-American audience" of many great artists.  Despite offering six John Parr albums, including the truly enjoyable Letter to America (with 29 tracks!) Spotify's "John Parr Top 5" songs actually shows only three songs: St. Elmo's Fire (twice), Naughty Naughty, and Restless Heart (twice).  Expand that to ten songs and you get six distinct songs.  What the hell, Spotify?

Side note: apparently Mr. Parr is touring the U.K. in November with two other favorites of mine, Foreigner and Asia.  Clearly, this is worth a trip to London.  Especially if Asia will play Days Like These and Don't Cry.

Back to St. Elmo's Fire.  After the discovery of so much more great John Parr music, I decided to have a closer look at each artist on the soundtrack.  Here's a summary for my other audiophile friends or 80's music lovers:

  1. St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion) by John Parr.  Covered above, right?
  2. Love Theme From St. Elmo's Fire, by David Foster.  I'm already familiar with the amazing David Foster, and trust me, you are, too.  He's written or produced a couple million hits.  If you're in a trivia contest and get the question, "Who (wrote/produced) this hit song from the 1980's" and you have no idea, just guess David Foster.  Good chance you'll win.  Incidentally, I think Foster wrote or co-wrote every song on this soundtrack.
  3. Shake Down, by Billy Squier.  I'm just going to classify Billy Squier as popular enough in the U.S. that if you don't recognize him, you need a more remedial music appreciation*** guide than my quick blog.
  4. This Time It Was Really Right, by Jon Anderson.  You probably recognize the voice -- he's the lead vocalist for Yes and responsible for some of my favorite Yes songs, like Leave It and It Can Happen.
  5. Saved My Life, by Fee Waybill.  Ah, yes.  If you grew up in the 80's, you know Fee Waybill without actually knowing Fee Waybill.  Remember She's a Beauty, by The Tubes?  That's Fee Waybill.  Every music device I've owned since fifth grade has included She's a Beauty.
  6. One Love, by David Foster. 
  7. Stressed Out (Close To The Edge) by Airplay.  First of the "I don't know who this is," groups on the soundtrack.  Turns out Airplay was David Foster and Jay Graydon, and was fairly short-lived.  However, listening to their offerings on Spotify, it's very clear that most of Toto is in the band, and you can easily hear the style that Foster brought to Earth, Wind, and Fire and Chicago.
  8. Young and Innocent, by Elefante.  One of the most evocative songs on the soundtrack, but who the heck is Elefante?  Apparently there are two Elefantes, John and Dino.  John was the frontman of Kansas for a time, but it looks like the brothers have spent more of their careers producing.
  9. If I Turn You Away, by Vikki Moss.  Wow, talk about weird coincidences.  First, Ms. Moss's singing career was apparently sadly short lived.  There isn't much available from her other than this excellent song.  While researching, though, I realized that I've actually seen her brother before, many times.  Joey Moss is a locker room attendant for the Edmonton Oilers and frequently appears on camera during the national anthem.  He has Down Syndrome, and of course, I love to discover positive examples of people with DS being accepted as happy members of society.  Very cool connection to stumble upon this morning.
  10. Into the Fire, by Todd Smallwood.  Looks like I'm stymied for the first time on this soundtrack.  From what I can find Smallwood has written for Mick Fleetwood and for some additional movie soundtracks, like Under Siege, but his web page is defunct, no Wikipedia page, and Spotify has very little.  Still, I found a number of songs that made it into my Spotify library -- particularly Funeral In Berlin and Leave The Radio.
  11. Give Her A Little Drop More, by Todd Smallwood.
  12. Respect, by Aretha Franklin. 
  13. For Just a Moment, by Amy Holland and Donny Gerrard. I think many people don't realize that there ARE lyrics to the soundtrack's love theme.  The instrumental version got massive airtime, and I don't recall ever hearing the lyric version on the radio.  But it's great; excellent lyrics and excellent performance.  First, Ms. Holland.  She's another long-time contributor to soundtracks, and she's married to Michael McDonald, with whom she's collaborated on some of her work.  This morning I listened to her 2016 album, Light on My Path.  She's got a great voice, it's nice to have finally found her "other work" after 30 years of listening to just one song. 

And finally, Donny Gerrard, the other voice from the love theme.  Need a definition of "smooth?"  Go grab his song Darlin' from Spotify.  Then you've got to listen to some 1970's Skylark.  (Which, not surprisingly, featured David Foster on keyboards.)  You might remember their best-known hit, Wildflower

And that's my music appreciation session for today.  After following St. Elmo's Fire a bit deeper I've got a fantastic new set of music to enjoy -- not to mention tickets to buy for November.

* Yes, it's possible to be embarrassed while alone.  I do it all the time.  Usually the embarrassment is accompanied by a mental image of Rob Garden saying, "Dude, really?"

** I love Cliff Richard's work, but face it, most Americans only recognize We Don't Talk Anymore and perhaps Devil Woman.  There are only a few of us with Suddenly on the Xanadu soundtrack, and I'm going to guess that nobody else reading this recognizes I'm No Hero or All I Ask of You.

*** I've always wondered what goes on in a music appreciation class.  Not having taken one, I'm going to assume that if you start to look behind the music a bit more, you're appreciating it.  Or maybe you just have to watch Pop Up Video marathons.

Intelligent Planning for Showers and Data Systems

On a recent road trip my hotel room shower provided an excellent physical example of the poor planning behind many data and tool infrastructures.  Don't get me wrong; it was a very nice bathroom.  I prefer to stay at Hilton hotels, and this Hampton Inn was quite nice.  The bathroom was clean* and looked like a lot of care went into the visual appeal.  Each individual component did what it was supposed to do.  At first glance, the system looked solid.

The shower stall was spacious -- probably six feet deep, very comfortable.**  Here's the problem: the door was at the opposite end from the shower head and taps, and the shower head was fixed in place.  There was no way to turn on the water without being blasted immediately.***

Worst shower design ever.

Of course, the system owners can't easily remedy the problem.  Relocating the taps is an expensive, laborious process.  Changing the shower head is the most likely option, except that the supply pipe from the wall had no threads.  And this is a hotel; the change has to be replicated in about 400 locations.

So, the infrastructure and a major delivery system were either not planned together, or not planned with the end user in mind.  They do the job, but the user experience is poor.  Sound familiar?

Here's the cardinal rule of system planning: you must start with the desired outcome.  That's the bare minimum.  Really, you need to start with the desired outcome AND some conception of how the system will be extended later, but since many organizations can't even force themselves to start at the desired outcome I'm going to pass right by the concept of extensibility right now...

I can hear many of my ex-colleagues at Microsoft thinking, "We're great now at starting with the desired outcome," to which I say "Bull dookey."****  After 16+ years of seeing systems developed at Microsoft, I'd say these are the most common starting points, in order of frequency:

  1. We need a data-origination tool!  Engineers need to track labor, we need to gather customer feedback, we need to track expenses.  Data input, build a tool!
  2. It's consolidation time.  We recognize (for the thousandth time) that we have dozens of non-communicative data systems, based on all these individual tools, and we're going to build (wait for it) a consolidated warehouse!  Oh, and our organization has convinced our new leader to fund a new consolidated warehouse, so we're going to ignore the eighteen other consolidated warehouses...
  3. The new boss wants a better scorecard, and wants it now.  We'll just build a cube for that, created some measures, and hell, if there's enough funding, how about a tool to go with it, with some "scrubbed" data?  Wait, the measure don't match the calculations from other tools?  Bummer.
  4. We are looking at the desired business outcome and planning the system accordingly.  However, time is of the essence.  Let's start with (wait for it) a new consolidated warehouse!  But this time is different.  This time we're going to plan on doing a serious data overhaul some day.  No, seriously, we will!
  5. (We're going to start with the outcomes we need to support, define the insights we'll need to provide that support, define the data structure needed to eventually deliver those insights, and build the tools on that new data structure.  We may even take this is as an opportunity to totally redefine some of our key business concepts.)

I put #5 in parentheses because in over 16 years I've rarely seen it happen, despite being the correct approach.

The concept here applies to any business or system, whether it's a single-person sole proprietorship or a corporation with 100,000 employees: when planning your data and tool infrastructure, start with a full set of desired outcomes -- tactical and strategic, internal and customer-facing, immediate need and future-proofing.

As an example, my game company is working on the design of our first online app.  We've considered a few features that didn't make the cut for the first version: league play, private instances, and end-user administration, to name a few.  However, the data infrastructure includes placeholders for all these concepts.  If we choose to implement any of them later, we won't have to patch or overhaul the base system to do so.  Thanks for the lesson, Microsoft.

Oh, and to the Hampton Inn: I know you can't do anything about that shower stall tap location, but perhaps you could put a towel hook somewhere near the door?

* Cleanliness is my #1 criteria for a hotel, particularly the bathroom and the bed.  I can put up with a lot in the way of noise, price, or lack of customer service, but if the bed looks unclean...I'll sleep in the Canyonero.

** Especially if you've been driving all day and haven't gotten much exercise.  The Fitbit Surge is water resistant, so you can get some steps in while showering.

*** I say there was "no way," but that's not quite true.  I did think out of the box, but the best immediate solution was to stand on the toilet, reach over the shower wall, and activate the taps.  I tested this method and found that at 5'9" I'm about four feet too short to make this work.

**** I don't really say "bull dookey," but I try to keep my blogs family-friendly, so...

Single Parenting 101 (For Dads Only)

On Tuesday my wife flew to Michigan to visit her mother.  For reference, today is Friday, and she's not coming back until Sunday night.  That leaves me alone with 9- and 14-year old daughters for nearly a week.  I'm enjoying the time greatly, in no small part because everyone I run into offers tremendous sympathy around how difficult this must be, despite the fact that it's really not difficult at all. 

The most logical conclusion is that I'm a natural genius at raising children.*  Hence, I've decided to share my amazing parenting insights and technique with the rest of the world, free of charge.  You're welcome.

Keep in mind that we're talking about tactical parenting here.  Day to day, for a week, while your spouse is gone.  Strategic parenting is an entirely different topic.**

Here's the crash course in just a few easy steps:

  1. Set an alarm for an hour before the kids have to be at school.  If they're alive at this point, your job is 90% done.
  2. Make breakfast for the non-angsty younger kid who still actually eats.  She likes cold, leftover hamburger for breakfast?  Don't waste her time by trying to talk her into oatmeal.  Give her the burger.  It's got enough calories to get her to lunch.
  3. Drop the kids off at school. 
  4. It's Miller Time.
  5. Set another alarm to get to the school before the kids are released.  This is important.  To a teacher, the worst dad in the world is the one who's late to picking up his kid from school.  They will rat you out to your wife.  I knew a guy who was late picking the kids up once.  He died a death that made Stephen King cringe.
  6. Go to the drive-through car wash.  It's like a ride at Six Flags but much cheaper.
  7. Get out the chainsaw and cut up the tree trimmings you've been meaning to handle for eight weeks.  Have the 9-year old wear safety goggles and hold the bundling twine. 
  8. Make everyone help in dinner preparation.***  That's quality time.
  9. Since everyone just interacted while making dinner, it's okay to watch Phineas & Ferb while actually eating it.
  10. Bedtime routine.  You can do this in half the time your wife does****, and you'll have to, since you let the kids watch an extra episode of P&F while you caught up on Reddit.
  11. Call your wife after they're in bed.  Explain that they were worn out after your big day together and just fell right asleep.
  12. Miller Time, Part II.

And that's it.  Your personal twelve-step program for managing the kids on your own.  Now, I'm pretty sure there's some Stanley Cup Playoff action to be watched.

* Occam's Razor, baby!

** But still really damned simple.  When planning how to raise your kids, prioritize development of the skills and knowledge needed to a) further your empire, b) avenge your untimely death or c) both.  Wham.  Job done.

*** Unless it's Day Three, when it's okay to go out to Red Robin.  You have to make dinner at home on Day One to show that you're not some deadbeat who can't "cook healthy" for his kids, and you have to do it again on Day Two to prove that Day One wasn't a fluke.  But Day Two can be breakfast-for-dinner.

**** I'll explain this more in my Amazon Kindle pamphlet, "How To Get The Kids In Bed In No Time Despite Your Wife's Insistence That It Can't Possibly Happen In Less Than Ninety Minutes."  Remember, Amazon will require proof of a Y chromosome before you purchase this item.

No Such Thing as Long Distance

I'm sitting in the lobby of Speed-E Car oil change and having a small chuckle over the magazine choices.  The waiting room table boasts no fewer than ten issues of Chevy High Performance magazine, a catalog from a real estate office, one copy of Shape (which I may read later for the "genius workout" that'll make me sexy, sleek, and toned) and something called W.  And then there's Game Informer.  I'm trying to picture the look on my father's or grandfather's face if they'd seen a magazine about video games at the oil change place.  "Bemused" comes to mind.

Waiting Room.JPG

A few weeks ago I cleaned out some of the time capsules taking up space in our home's least-used closet.  Among other things I found one of my radio station notebooks, circa 1994.  Back when I started traveling beyond my hometown I found myself constantly searching for radio stations to my taste.  When I found a good station I jotted it down in a notebook, so next time through I'd have a quick reference.*

Recently I drove to Las Vegas**.  In 1990 a solo drive from Fort Worth to Vegas would have required a whole lotta mix tapes.  Some stretches of this trip are remote enough that I feel lucky to even find oxygen, much less an FM station.  Not in 2017.  The Canyonero came with Sirius/XM radio, and even in the most empty stretches of Zion National Park*** or the Llano Estacado the Big 80's on 8 comes through smooth as Martin Fry's voice after a glass of warm milk.

That's right.  Five states, 2200 miles, one radio station.****   

While driving through Zion I sent a tweet to one of my favorite DJs, Alan Hunter, and got a reply.  Not that amazing in 2017 (aside from the fact that Alan Hunter seems to personally respond to 1000 tweets per day) but again, memories: one late night in 1984 I called the late-night DJ on a soft rock station.  I was pretty thrilled to find him willing to spend thirty minutes on the phone, explaining the business of radio to a twelve year old.

A few weeks later the phone bill arrived.  The radio station was in a town twenty miles away, what the phone company used to refer to as "local long distance."  Hence, we were charged by the minute for that call.  The expression on my father's face?  Not bemused.  In fact, I don't think he was 'mused in any way. 

*I'd not yet learned the Jerry Radio Travel method.  Jerry was the only guy in my college juggling troupe with a car and he listened to one channel: Scan.  Take a three hour trip with Jerry and you're listening to Scan the entire time.  When a song you like comes on, you just have to hope that you'll get three or four snippets of it as the scanning action cycles around.

**And back. 

***I actually fired up Facetime for a while in Zion, so my 14 year old could see the landscape I was enjoying while she slaved over algebra homework. #ThatsParenting

****Okay, five.  I also listen to 70's on 7, Classic Vinyl, Classic Rewind, and E Street Radio.  But you get the point.

Radio Edits and Down Syndrome

I've been on a little vacation this weekend and busy with the last mile of Film Tycoons, so no blogs for a few days.  I've debated for a while whether I want to share any of my essays on Down Syndrome and decided to post at least one here this week -- after my younger daughter was born with DS the first couple years were a little rough, to put it mildly.  I started a journal/essay collection of sorts and haven't shared any of it until now.

I haven't edited this at all since writing it eight years ago, just a bit before Kelsey turned two.  Usually I try to make my blogs somewhat humorous and this one really isn't, but that's okay.  Not every day needs to be a laugh riot as long as the majority of them are fun.

People have been asking me "what it's like" to have a child with Down Syndrome.  The really short answer is that it's like having any other kid, but that's not completely true.  There's the day to day or week to week stuff -- she has regular therapy appointments that I never would have expected for any other kid.  There are also the Down-specific things, like the early checks for heart perforations and the looming specter of childhood leukemia, which is far more common in kids with Down and did hit our best friends' son.

I think people want to know something less practical or obvious, though, and I think about it a lot.  I thought I knew "what it's like" based on our friends' experience, but when Kelsey was born I realized that there's still a world of difference between being very close to a family with Down and being a family with Down.  It's hard to understand "what it's like" without actually being there.  So, I've been looking for ways to describe it to a "layman."

I love music and I greatly dislike radio edits.  I specifically dislike edits for time.  Most radio stations shy away from playing songs that are outside of their three to four minute range.  It's pretty simple; three to four minutes is the average length of a contemporary song and a radio station's business model is built around it.  They plan their airtime carefully and a six or eight minute song is hard to fit into the play list. 

Ever heard the missing verse from Bob Welch's "Sentimental Lady?"  I thought not.

Ever heard the missing verse from Bob Welch's "Sentimental Lady?"  I thought not.

It's done in every genre of contemporary music.  The editor clips out a few (or many) seconds of music in a place where he thinks the music can be brought together with as little continuity break as possible.  The most glaring example I've heard is Billy Joel's Piano Man, where the radio edit actually cuts the second half of one verse and the first half of the next, thus merging two verses into one.  You can also hear it somewhat more subtly in songs like The Little River Band's Cool Change or Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart.  (Or anything else written by Jim Steinman.)

The problem is that no matter how deftly the edit is done, anyone with even a slight passion for music recognizes the omission.  If you know the song, you notice at least subconsciously that "something's off here."

Of course, the radio edit doesn't ruin the song for you, or ruin music for you.  I don't think anyone hears a radio edit and decides he's never going to listen to that song again.  But in my experience, there's often still some little touch of frustration or disappointment when the radio edit comes on and you know that that one piece is missing.  If you listen to Total Eclipse of the Heart 100 times on the radio, you might hear the missing verse once (and in my opinion it adds a lot to the song.)

That's one of the answers I've come up with so far for "what's it like?"  You can't help but notice that a few of the notes are missing but you still love the song.

It's All About What The Audience Sees

One of the first subjects I studied in college was magic.  Specifically, stage magic, as opposed to supernatural magic or Magic: The Gathering.  The latter wasn't first published until a bit later in my college career, and the former didn't offer a full four year degree.  You can get all sorts of degrees in it now, but instead of "witchcraft" it's referred to as "data analysis."*

Anyway, I quickly learned two things about sleight of hand.  First, the texture and finish of the cards significantly impact the mechanics of card manipulation.  Second, the audience's perception of magic is driven by many factors beyond your sheer mechanical skill.

While working on Film Tycoons I've greatly enjoyed the search for a manufacturer -- this has been a great learning experience and now that we're in the final stages the selection of printing materials is a critical task.  A few companies have been very responsive to my inquiries but Longshore Limited of Hong Kong shines.

Not all cards are created equal.  Magicians prefer to use Bicycle and Bee back cards because they have a very high quality air finish with just a slightly rough texture.  In short, they're excellent for card manipulations.**  Even a non-magician can tell the difference between Bicycles and a dollar store deck -- pick up ten cards and fan them.  Bicycles (and Bees) will spread evenly and the cards glide against one another.  Lower quality cards will stick to each other and clump.

Not surprisingly you'll find a wide range of paper and finish qualities when shopping for card printing.  When you're looking at mass production you really want some basis for comparison beyond, "I really like Bicycle playing cards, do you have something like that?"  Longshore has many permutations available and I can't tell you offhand the difference between a 330g black core and 250g white core cards.  Last Wednesday night I mentioned this in an email to Nancy, my brilliant contact at Longshore.  By Monday morning FedEx had delivered a box of samples to my house.***

That's overseas shipping in two business days, and I've yet to actually place an order.  In fact, as potential customers go I'm probably a real pain in the neck.  As we've iterated on the game development process I've updated our component list numerous times and Nancy cheerfully provides me with new quotes every time.  She's also patiently answered two dozen questions about the production process, recommended freight forwarders, and provided suggestions and options. 

Different experience with another company.  (This isn't another manufacturer competing for our Film Tycoons business, it's a provider here in the U.S. with a service that we needed pretty quickly for another aspect of the game development.)  I placed an order with them last week.  The automated reply estimated a shipping date of March 10th.  Okay, we can wait that long.  Last night I thought I'd check the provider's system to see what information I can get about my order status.  Turns out they do have ongoing updates -- my order is now estimated to ship on March 13th.

I'm not happy that my order is now arriving three days later.  My perception of the company's reliability just took a hit.  And since I had to find that information myself rather than being notified, I'm certainly not feeling valued. 

I'm confident that both Longshore and the other company can deliver -- that's the mechanical part of the process.  Longshore, however, demonstrates all those other behaviors which positively influence my perception of the company, and any magician will tell you that both those things are necessary before magic happens.

* When I started college the only computer discipline offered was "Computer Engineering."  Yeah, we didn't even have Business Information Systems yet.  You sure as hell couldn't major in "Creating Gaming Apps for iOS."

** If you'd like to learn some fun card manipulations to amaze your friends, I strongly recommend Jeff McBride's video series.  He's an amazing magician and his how-to videos are actually excellent teaching aids.

*** I was going to share a picture of the sample package from Longshore but I haven't asked their permission, so I decided not to.  Take my word for it that this isn't just an envelope with four or five cards in it -- it's a box full of cards, pawns, dice, a Loot Crate for aspiring game makers. 

Technological Warfare

Tonight I'm teaching a class at The Maker Spot -- Minecraft for Parents.*  It's designed for folks who are wondering why their kids are glued to a game with graphics that were outdated before Emma Watson was born and Queen became popular for the second time.  I'm covering game basics, including a hands-on introduction to game controls, the various modes of play, and the ins and outs of servers and hosting.  That last topic will segue into a general discussion of Internet safety, which I suspect will be of even more interest than Minecraft itself. 

You can download a copy of the handout if you'd like.  It focuses entirely on the Minecraft portion of the class, but for my blog topic today I thought I'd expand on Internet safety and parenting. 

For a typically developing child parenting is pretty simple.  Simply tailor all your activities toward developing skills enabling your child to either advance your empire or avenge your untimely death.  If your kid grows up able to handle these tasks, you win.

Seriously, other parents ask me pretty frequently to give them a list of apps that they should block on their kids' phones, tablets, and laptops.**  That's the strategy of choice: just tell me what programs could be bad for my child.  My response is always the same: if you think you're going to outsmart your kids technologically, you've already lost.

My first computer was a TI-99/4A.  (I actually got to use a Timex Sinclair 1000 at school; feel free to share your reminiscence about ancient tech in the comments.)  My parents knew nothing about personal computers -- my mom was just happy I was doing something other than playing Dungeons and Dragons for a change.  By junior high I was programming in TurboPascal and FORTAN, and playing TradeWars 2000 on the local BBS system.  Shazam.  Me and my 300 baud modem had already outpaced my parents on the tech front.

That's right.  400 words in that speech synthesizer's vocabulary!

That's right.  400 words in that speech synthesizer's vocabulary!

Here's an interesting key to understanding expectations of technological proficiency back then: many high schools were just starting to require that one take typing, as typing "is rapidly becoming a fundamental skill in the workforce."***

Fast forward about thirty years.  Typing as a technology skill?  Please.  Young people are so immersed in technology that they're practically coding JavaScript at birth.  My nine year old (who, keep in mind, is developmentally challenged) has mastered the four-remote setup for the entertainment center, can navigate Netflix versus her DVDs like a champ, and browses the iPad app store to find anything having to do with Zootopia, dinosaurs, or National Geographic specials.  Meanwhile, I know plenty of adults who can't figure out how to connect their laptop to the network printer, or refer to their mouse as a "clicker."****

Here's my theory.  You can refer to it as Usual's Axiom if you like.  The ability to stay knowledgeable on current technology is inversely proportionate to a person's age and the loss of pace increases geometrically as a person ages. 

Supporting evidence is all around you. (That's why it's an axiom and not a postulate, you know.)  People tend to find what works and stick with it.  Even those who enjoy exploring new technologies tend to eventually specialize.  Meanwhile, technology itself gets broader and more complex in its relationships.  My former colleagues probably remember when "solution support" became a concept at Microsoft as opposed to silos like database, platform, and networking. 

The same thing is true on your kids' phone.  There are more apps available than you can possibly keep up with, and the rate at which more come out increases constantly.  And even if you are diligent about keeping up with them, your kid is better at it.  The younger a person is, the more he or she has been immersed in tech and the better she is at dealing with it reflexively.

The solution to this potential technology problem is decidedly non-tech.  Call it ethics, morals, values -- the label doesn't matter.  It all amounts to the same thing.  You can't possibly take away every avenue for bad behavior, so you have to teach your child to act in the way you consider appropriate.  Two years ago a young woman in our middle school sent rated R photos of herself to a couple of boys via SnapChat.  A flurry of SnapChat banning descended upon my daughter's friends.  Problem is, many parents weren't aware of Vine, Instagram, Facebook and about a thousand other photo sharing apps, not to mention texting and email. 

M.D. and I had a long talk about both the local photo incident and stories we'd read of people posting inappropriate comments in public venues.  We talked about the immediate potential for embarrassment.  We talked a lot about the potential for future repercussions and the permanence of whatever you choose to share online -- what if that comment or photo surfaces later when you're applying for a job, interviewing for a scholarship, or running for an office?  What message is that going to convey to someone who's evaluating your judgement, maturity, and character? 

I hope the value conversation is enough for my kids.  I worked for the largest software company in the world longer than my older daughter has been alive, yet I know it won't be long before she's blown past me in tech knowledge.  Character is the constant that ultimately determines the impact of the tools at one's disposal, and it's one of the most useful legacies you can pass on to your kids. 

* Good seats are still available.

** It's because I worked at Microsoft.  Everyone at Microsoft knows everything about technology, you know.  Just like growing up in Michigan means I'm personally acquainted with everyone else from north of Ohio.

*** Straight out of my high school course catalog.  Typing was a great alternative to shop.

**** Sorry Mom!

I Am Not What I Thought I Was

Every so often a person learns something about him- or herself that completely changes one's outlook on life.  Realization may arrive through third party observation, direct counseling, or the best life coach this century has to offer.*  Whatever the origin, these revelations can shake your foundations and certainly have a functional impact on, well, everything.  I had one of those experiences this week and I'm hesitant to even say it out loud, but I've decided that a blog post is the best way to share it with my closest friends and (hopefully) greatest supporters.

I am, apparently, left-eye dominant.

For years I've assumed I'm right-eye dominant.  I was very active in sports growing up; I used a right-handed stick in hockey, kicked a soccer ball with my right foot, and until I was in my twenties, I always used my right hand to hold my fork.  In hindsight, I probably should have suspected that I was different when I started using my left hand for fork manipulation as frequently as my right. 

Until now I've only shared this secret with a closely trusted spiritual advisor.**  He assured me that this isn't my fault.  Most likely the blame rests with my seventh grade typing instructor, who insisted that I use both hands.  That practice naturally led to a breakdown of the barriers between my true individual eye strengths, and other factors contributed over time to push me "over the edge" to left eyeism.  I don't know that it matters, though.  I'm here now, and the only way to live my life is to embrace it. 

You're probably wondering how I discovered this.  I was researching MD's birthday present and needed to know how to estimate the appropriate bow draw length for a teenager without having her measured at the archery range.***  I found an excellent formula for arriving at draw length (take the kid's wing span in inches and divide it by 2.5) and there was an accompanying article on determining eye dominance.  I did a simple test and...then I did it again.  And again.  The results don't lie, so neither can I: I've always thought I was right-eye, but I'm not.

Again, I should have seen the signs.  For years I've been shooting long guns left-handed (which I now understand was really shooting left-eyed) and I've developed a strong affinity and no small talent at shooting two pistols at once.  I'll bet the folks at the target range have been mocking me on the sly for a long time now; they can probably pick out left-eye dominance even before some poor sap like me recognizes it in himself.

I'm still reeling at the implications here.  How do I tell my family members?  I assume they'll feel a lot of shame, guilt, and then resentment that I caused them guilt.  Will they even want to know me?  Same thing with the other key people in my life -- my golf crew.  They've all got what can only be described as right-eye machismo; they've been solidly right-eye for decades and assumed I was too.  They're going to think I've been fooling them somehow; I'm not sure they'll understand that I've just come to understand this about myself.  At least I don't have to worry about notifying my HR department.****

Do I need to buy a whole new wardrobe?  Join a community or add #LeftEyeGuy hashtags to all my posts?  I'm probably going to start using a different brand of golf ball, at the least.  Baby steps.

I can tell you one thing -- it's at least a relief to finally be living with the real me.  There's nothing more painful than pretending to be something you're not, even when you didn't realize it yourself for the longest time.  I just hope the rest of the world will accept me.

* You know, the Internet.

** We met via AOL, and he says he's a priest. Remember, a stranger is just a friend you haven't email with yet! 

*** The new bow hasn't arrived yet, but don't worry -- she doesn't read my blog.  Most people get to it via Facebook, and according to MD, "Facebook is for old people."

**** Dodged that bullet!  Whew.