The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

November 27, 2013

Going Around the Table, 2013 Edition

Filed under: Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:19 am

Well, once again it seems that Thanksgiving is fast approaching.  This shouldn’t be too big a surprise to anyone really (although one or two people I know might want to occasionally double-check the date before they take the wrong day off of work,) but to be perfectly honest, it’s managed to sneak up a bit on me this year.  Work, as always has been keeping me pretty busy lately.  Things have actually been slowing down somewhat for a few weeks now, but the past few days have seen things flare up, and just this past weekend a problem with a test vehicle in California ultimately required a last-minute trip to San Jose to sort some things out, as outlined in my last post (more on this coming up soon.)  On top of that, me and my friend are now less than two weeks away from the vacation we’ve been planning for months, and trying to get things in order for the trip is taking a fair bit of effort.  It’s amazing just how much work can go into what is supposed to be a relaxing (for once) vacation, especially when you need to account for formal nights, “smart casual” outfits for the dining room on the other nights, not to mention all the arrangements you need before and after and all the stuff you need to plan out.  Sure it’s a lot of effort, but if it lets me spend two weeks conveniently forgetting about work, then it’s worth it.

Anyway, as has become my custom over the time I’ve been writing this Blog, as Thanksgiving approaches it is time for my annual “Going Around the Table” Blog post.  For those of you unfamiliar with this, in the Vanderhoeven family we have a tradition on Thanksgiving where just before we all sit down to dinner we each take a turn going around the table and talking about some of the things we are grateful.  Naturally I participate in this along with everyone else, but for a number of years now (I believe this will be my sixth one) I have written a Blog post as well talking about the things I am grateful for.  In a way, these posts also act as checkpoints of a sort, something of a miniature encapsulation of my current state.  When I go back and read some of my previous Going Around the Table posts, it’s generally pretty clear when things seemed to be going well, and when things seemed to be a struggle.  Regardless of where I was (and where I am) I have still tried to be positive about things, and know that I wouldn’t be where I am without some help.

This past year has definitely been an interesting one (well, when you think about it every year is interesting, but the definition of “interesting” rarely seems to stay in one place.)  When I wrote this post a year ago, I stated that in many ways I seemed to be in something of a holding pattern at the time.  There were many things in my life that could have gone one way or another, but didn’t seem to be going anywhere at the time.  Fast forward a year later, and although there are still a number of those things that I haven’t quite managed to resolve yet, but quite a bit has changed in the past 12 months.  A year ago, I was rapidly approaching the end of a contract on the Kindle team at Amazon that I had enjoyed and felt that I had done quite well at, but which had pretty much wound down at that point and didn’t look like it had much long-term potential.  That ended (as expected, with plenty of advance warning) just a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving.  At the time, I had planned on taking it easy for a bit before moving onto the next thing, but the next thing showed up a lot sooner than I expected.  It was just a week and a half after the end date on my Amazon contract that I found myself starting my current job with Airbiquity, where I now test software for use in luxury cars.  Although the pay here is significantly better than my last job (and even there I thought I was doing pretty well,) I do have to admit that the first few months were rather difficult for me as I tried to get used to the system I’m working on and deal with some people I found it difficult to get along with at first.  The project I’ve been working on has consistently been challenging, and at times has taken up far more of my time than I would like, but as the past year has gone by, I feel that I’ve managed to gradually figure out things reasonably well, and over time I found that the people I had trouble with at first became a lot easier to deal with as I got to know them better.  That doesn’t mean that things aren’t still quite challenging at times, but at least they seem manageable.  All in all, even if it did take some time to get settled into it, this job has definitely been a good opportunity, and it’s allowed me opportunities I haven’t had in the past, so I’m definitely grateful for it.

Elsewhere, it seems like everyone else in my family has been changing quite a bit, and yet I’m still in pretty much the same place I was a year ago.  Over the course of this past year, my parents have moved out of Redmond to a lovely new house in rural Snohomish County, and even though they’re still close enough to visit, it’s a lot longer drive to get there now.  Also during the course of the year one of my brothers and his family moved out of the area to Provo (and added a daughter recently) while he works on a degree at BYU, and my other brother (who lives down there already) got married in May.  One of my sisters also added a fourth boy to their family, and my other sister’s husband has just finished a PhD at WSU.  Me?  I’m pretty much in the same place where I have been.  To be perfectly honest it’s a rather comfortable niche with little to complain about.  At times it does feel like I’m still a little bit stuck in a rut, but regardless of what may be happening elsewhere, at least I do have the sense that I’m at least making forward progress on things, even if it isn’t as fast as I’d like it to be.

But if there’s one thing I’m truly grateful for this year, it would be the friends I have and the opportunities I have to spend time with them.  There is one friend in particular who has become my frequent traveling companion and confidante, with whom I now find myself spending a great deal of my time.  In the interest of maintaining privacy I’ll keep from talking too much about her here, but if she’s reading this I want her to know just how truly grateful I am to have her around, and how nice it is to have someone with whom I can be comfortable just being myself.  I know we each have our own sets of challenges and complications to deal with, and I can appreciate how much it helps to have someone to share them with, even if I do have a tendency to overexplain things at times and occasionally have to be reminded not to get into swordfights with small children in gift shops (long story.)  I’m also grateful for the opportunities we’ve had to travel together over the past couple of years and the ones we have coming up.  Sure I could travel on my own if I really wanted to (and I have done so in the past on occasion) but it’s just so much better to have someone to share the experience with.  And in the end, that’s what makes all the difference.

Regardless of the circumstances I happen to find myself in at any given time, there’s always plenty to be thankful for.  And even if things aren’t ever quite perfect, at least I can see them heading in the right direction.

November 23, 2013

Fun with unexpected business travel: Actually, I don’t really know the way to San Jose.

Filed under: Random Stuff, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 1:48 pm

(Edit:  Apparently the Android WordPress app can’t be bothered to resize images, leaving a ridiculously huge image on the front page.  Those responsible have been sacked.  I’ll fix it when I’m on something better than gerbil-powered hotel Wi-Fi.)

As of 4:30 yesterday, I’m pretty sure my weekend plans didn’t include anything about flying down to Silicon Valley for an unexpected debugging session to try to troubleshoot a problem with a car that is blocking a rather important test. Apparently that’s what happened though, since I’m currently on a badly delayed plane to San Jose (remember kids, you can’t spell “Southwest Airlines” without “Late”!) to try to solve a problem with about half of the usual debugging tools I normally have at my disposal and only a vague idea of what’s going on.  Given the fact that the FAA has finally done away with that archaic rule about no electronic devices below 10,000 feet, I’ve actually got enough time to do some blogging on one of these relatively short flights.  Given the fact that the plane is not currently plummeting to Earth in an impressive fireball of doom I’ve got to figure the risk was pretty nonexistent in the first place.  This particular plane seems to be staffed by a rather snarky crew of flight attendants, which made for a rather interesting safety spiel prior to takeoff (we were warned of what to do just in case the Southwest Airlines flight turns into a Royal Caribbean cruise, and it didn’t involve any trips to the buffet unfortunately.)

Even though work has been quite hectic for the past few months , it had actually slowed down over the past few weeks, to the point that I can actually leave the office at a somewhat reasonable time most days.  Of course assorted fire drills do still pop up every so often, but that’s pretty much par for the course no matter where you are.  I am also now just two weeks away from the big vacation I’ve been looking forward to for six months now, and starting to get ready for that.  Granted, the past year has provided more than adequate opportunities to travel (something I am grateful for, and something I suspect I will not always have the chance to do,) but for years now I’ve been in sort of a limbo where as I jumped from contact to contact at Microsoft and elsewhere, I always found myself in one of two situations:  Plenty of money and to many obligations to go anywhere, or plenty of time, but no money to spend on traveling.

It has only been within the last couple of years that I have been able to manage both at the same time, and I’m taking advantage of the situation while I can.  I also consider myself fortunate to have good friends to travel with, one of whom will be joining me on the upcoming trip.  With Thanksgiving coming up next week I will save most of that for the annual “Going Around the Table”post, but even if things aren’t quite perfect for me right now ( and aren’t likely to be perfect anytime soon) I do still have to consider myself fortunate for the opportunities I have right now, and good people to share them with.

In the meantime, I might as well sit back and enjoy the flight, and hope I know what I’m doing well enough to do some good here.  At least I can’t say I lead a boring life these days, right?

November 16, 2013

Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , — Brian Lutz @ 10:36 pm

Is it just me, or does it seem like practically everyone is trying to sell you a tablet these days?

Seriously, it’s practically impossible to keep up with all the new tablets that keep popping up.  Although there were plenty of tablets that existed there before the iPad was released back in 2010 (support for pen-based input on a computer designed for the purpose dates all the way back to Windows 3.1,) most of them toiled in obscurity, generally relegated to specialized tasks and a few diehards that were willing to put up with their quirks and limitations.  I’ve long observed that for a certain large segment of the target audience of computer buyers, any novel new technology introduced to the public (especially if Microsoft is the company doing the introduction) is largely rejected by most as being a pointless waste of time, right up until Apple makes something similar, at which point it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.  This seems to happen regardless of the actual merits of the technology in question (although I will say lately the naysayers have had a point in many cases, and skepticism toward Apple’s offerings seems to be on the rise even if the sales don’t really reflect it) and has been happening for long enough that a lot of people just accept it as part of the realities of the market.

Nonetheless, regardless of what you happen to think of it as a product, there’s no denying the impact that the iPad had on the market when it was introduced.  Even though speculation about Apple’s entry into the tablet market had been rampant for months beforehand, when the iPad actually showed up it was disruptive in a way that few products have ever been disruptive before.  And at the time the iPad was introduced, I was in a bit of an odd position that gave me an inadvertent front-row seat to the whole thing.  It was about a month or so after I had been laid off from my most recent (and as of right now last) Microsoft contract working on a forgettable project for a dysfunctional team, and somehow I had landed a short-term gig with a small company in need of some testing for an iPhone app they were working on (which is a rather interesting story by itself, but that’s beside the point right now) in spite of my total experience with iPhones being about ten minutes on demo kiosks at the time (which was still about ten minutes more time than I had spent using Android phones.)  Nonetheless, I managed to go in and make enough of an impact that what was supposed to be a two-week contract turned into seven months, and seriously changed the direction of my career for the better.

And even though I’ve never been a big Apple fan, I do firmly believe that the introduction of the iPad in February of 2010 contributed significantly to this.  At the time, we were working on a number of (mostly) iPhone projects for MTV, but as soon as the iPad was introduced, they immediately wanted iPad apps, to the point that we were instructed to all but drop what we were doing and switch our development efforts to an iPad version of the app we had been working on.  The artists (one of whom had to be brought back after having finished his work and moving on)  had to redo basically all of the animations in the app to match the higher screen resolution (this was back when 1024×768 could still be considered “HD” for marketing purposes) and a fair bit of the code had to be redone as well.  Since basically nobody smaller than a Fortune 500 company had any chance of getting hold of the actual iPad hardware prior to launch (and even the ones fortunate enough to have it had to deal with some pretty ridiculous NDAs and security procedures set forth by Apple) we had to work with the iOS simulator included in the SDK to try to test things as well as we could, but even then there was no guarantee that any of the stuff would actually work.  In spite of all this, we were able to get the Beavis and Butt-Head app for iPad into the App Store on the iPad’s launch day.  It was for that reason, and that reason alone, that I actually bought an iPad on launch day (skipping the horrendous multi-hour Apple store lines at Bellevue Square in favor of the local Mac Store, where I was able to grab one with practically no waiting) mostly so I could download the app and see if it actually worked (it did, but not without a few glitches.)  The iPhone version of the app that I was brought on to work on originally ended up not being released until nearly a month later, mostly because other iPad projects had relegated it to the back burner.

Of course, these days the iPad isn’t the only game in town the way it was back when it came out, although they do still command a significant share of the market.  Microsoft, even though they were involved with the whole tablet thing long before most other competitors, was caught flat-footed by the iPad, took way too long to release a not-so-competitive competing product, and nearly four years later is still trying to play catch-up, mostly filling warehouses with unsold Surfaces in the process.  Blackberry and HP’s attempts at taking on the tablet market with their own operating systems did little but leave both companies swimming in red ink (although HP does still maintain one Android-based tablet in their line-up.)  Most of the action in the tablet market these days seems to be on the Android side, where it seems that just about everyone and their dog is making Android devices these days.  On one side, you have the larger OEMs (Samsung, Asus, Acer, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) putting out their own variations of Android tablets (plus a few Windows 8 based tablets on the side) and not making much effort to differentiate their products from everyone else’s similar products.  Google, for their part, is selling their Nexus phones and tablets, mostly by merit of providing a “pure” Android experience free of the clutter and fluff prevalent on a lot of the other Android tablets.  And then there’s Amazon  with their Kindle Fires, which are technically Android tablets, but in reality they kind of exist in their own little world where the operating system is mostly just there to sell you their content.  Throw in a couple of fringe competitors here and there, and you can start to see where this whole thing might start to get a bit confusing.

So, out of all that, what do you actually need if you’re looking for a tablet?  I’m pretty sure I’m not the one to answer that question, since I can barely keep up with the announcements for all these things, much less actually use enough of them to form informed opinions on them.  If you truly wanted to use just about everything you might use a tablet for, you’d want to have an iOS tablet, an Android tablet of some sort, a Windows 8 tablet (probably a real one, not an RT-based one) and possibly an Amazon tablet just for good measure, although there are other ways to consume most of the Amazon content on the other ones.  Ultimately, the answer to the question of which tablet to get depends on your specific needs.  I do have to admit that the iPad Air and the newer model iPad Mini do actually look rather compelling, to the point that for the first time since I bought my original iPad (which was orphaned by Apple rather quickly to the point that it never even got updated to iOS 6, even though the iPad 2 remains on store shelves three years after its release) I actually considered getting a new one.  The $200 trade-in deal Target had a couple of weeks ago for any working iPad probably helped there too, although I ultimately ended up blowing the trade-in credit for my old iPad from that on buy-2-get-one-free video games a week later (but that’s another story for another post.)  Of course, you’re going to be paying a premium to get the Apple logo on the back of your tablet, and in the case of the iPad Mini that premium is steep indeed, especially compared to some of the deals you can get out there for some of the more prominent Android tablets.  On the Android side, the most recent Nexus 7 seems to be the most obvious choice, but if you’re looking for a bigger screen than that (and a lot of people are) the question gets a lot harder to answer.  And as always, there seems to be no shortage of new releases looking to dethrone the reigning champion (with the latest challenger apparently being nVidia’s Tegra Note 7 platform.  Then again, if you’re looking for a somewhat cheaper tablet and can deal with some trade-offs, I’ve actually been reasonably impressed with the Kindle Fire HD that I’ve been using as my primary tablet for the last year or so, but you do lose the Google apps and have to deal with the more limited software selection of the Amazon app store if you do go that route.)

The underlying problem with all this, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that any of this info is going to be valid for more than about five minutes or so.  By the time you read this, I’m sure someone is going to have released some compelling new tablet that’s going to throw the whole thing off, and by the time we sort it all out from there we’ll get another tablet from someone else and the whole thing will start all over again.  In just a matter of a couple of years tablets have gone from being a novelty to being a commodity, and a rather unstable one at that.  When it’s getting to the point where you can just about have your pick of the lot for not much more than $200 or so (at least on the Android side of things,) it’s not surprising that people might not be getting too attached to their tablets.  After all, why stick to just one when you can collect the whole set?

November 3, 2013

A Concise Guide to Surviving Disneyland: Dubious Advice From a (Somewhat) Seasoned Disneyland Veteran

Filed under: travel — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 9:42 pm

It was in January of 2006 that I took my first trip to Disneyland.  Well, actually not my first trip, but the first one I could remember more than vague details of.  My mother took me and my siblings there for one day back in 1987 when my Dad was in Los Angeles on business.  Although I do remember some stuff, particularly the Haunted Mansion and Big Thunder Railroad, as well as Star Tours (which was new at the time) and the construction site for Splash Mountain, for the most part it was all a blur.  It wasn’t until I was able to visit on my own as an adult that I was able to gain a greater appreciation of the place, and it wasn’t long before I became a frequent visitor.  I have now been an annual passholder at Disneyland since 2011, and me and my friends now make frequent trips to the parks, typically weekend getaways.  Not to say that I’m any sort of expert on the subject or anything like that, but we’ve definitely picked up some tips along the way.

Given the fact that I occasionally get asked for advice by people who may be planning trips of their own, I thought it might be a good idea to put together some of the general advice that I pass on most frequently into one convenient place.  If nothing else, it might save me some typing later on.  As enjoyable as a trip to Disneyland can be, it’s about as far as you can possibly get from being a relaxing vacation, and it’s also the type of thing you don’t want to just charge into unprepared.  I apologize in advance if some of these tips don’t necessarily apply to everyone After all, when me and my friends go to Disneyland we’re flying down there and generally spending three days or more in the parks.  Although from my perspective this might be the most common scenario I see when people make Disney trips, your approach may and will vary.  Some people are stopping in for one day on the way to somewhere else or when they have some extra time.  Other people might decide to make a whole week out of it and go from rope drop to park closing every day (which sounds like a great recipe for epic meltdowns if you ask me, but that’s beside the point.)  Regardless of the approach you’re taking to your trip, you still want to be prepared.

That said, don’t take any of this as anything more than advice.  I am not trying to tell people that there’s one specific way to do things, only give advice on what has worked for me and my friends in the past.  It is also likely that as I figure out new things and as things change (as they tend to frequently do) I will periodically update and add to this guide.  You will find my list of tips and tricks after the jump.

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