Leveling Up – Backyard Additions

This post was written on July 29, but went unpublished as I’d hoped that it could be edited in favor of our situation. It has not, so the original post is being published, along with a more recent update.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Hampton. Our new dog, as of May 2016.


Yes, he’s adorable, and fluffy, and a living creature that needs access to the outdoors, for.. well, his business. Naturally, that meant that we needed a fence to contain the little guy. We’d always talked down putting in a fence, but since 2 of 3 sides of our yard was already enclosed by neighbors fences, we decided it would be for the best to finish off the enclosure.

What we had forgotten to consider, was that if we were putting a fence in, we needed to move quickly on installing a concrete patio. It was something that we’d both wanted to put in eventually, but getting a fence for a dog would now speed that up. The space outside our walkout basement is ideal for hosting and lounging in the evenings. But as far as new construction goes, we didn’t have a lot to work with in it’s original state.

So, we reached out a few local contractors around Ankeny and Central Iowa to get bids for 396 sq ft of concrete patio, laid out in the design below:












The  bids varied, with the minimum being $3,500 (Fox Concrete) and the highest being $7,500 (Tom’s Concrete). We’re incredibly frugal, and after having read many positive reviews on our communities Facebook group about Fox Concrete being really reliable, we pulled the trigger.

The project started out as you’d expect, with Fox very roughly marking the layout of the patio.


We also did some quick landscaping prior to the work as well, since Fox said they would move the rock wherever we wanted. Bonus points for them.


On June 9 we left town on vacation and they began the work. By the end of the day 2, they had everything poured, and it looked really good based on the pictures. There was a lot of debris left at that point, but they had to come back to clean up so we weren’t worried.


On June 21 we returned home from vacation, and were excited to check out our new outdoor living space. We were so excited, and at first it looked great. But as we inspected more closely, we were alarmed at the volume and composition of the remaining debris (concrete bits, wood, nails, rebar chunks, dirt, and rock). It was heaped around the patio and left for us to clean up. Not cool. (And you might notice the cracks in the cement there too, which I’ll get to in a second.)


The mess of course prompted a call to Fox Concrete, and after a bit of complaining and the sending of photos, they were nice enough to come check it out. They hauled away THREE garbage bags of junk that was left from the original work and, honestly, could have taken another couple. But hey, they came back and cleaned up, so I was happy.

But that left us with the biggest problem of our brand new patio: hairline cracks across much of the concrete’s surface. At this point, we were both upset and worried that something was wrong. Was it still structurally sound? Would the cracks get worse over time, after rain or over winter with ice expansion? Even if we went with the cheapest option, even if the problem was purely cosmetic, it was incredibly frustrating to know that our $3,500 project had landed us a patio that we were embarrassed to show off.


This of course led to another call to Fox Concrete, who assured me at that point that they would come back out and remedy the “cosmetic flaws” with a concrete overlay. Our first assurance of a fix was during our conversation on on June 23, and on July 1 Fox provided a picture of this overlay as a recommendation (which is probably the cheapest and easiest option, which I said I was fine with).


I’m hopeful that they return to finish up the job, so that I can call this project complete, but as of now, July 29, I’ve not heard any confirmed day, week, or month that they plan to come back. I’m sitting tight, and hoping for the best out of the little contractor that could, but I’ll be honest, it seems like we’re getting strung along by Fox, which is sad since I live two blocks away from the owners house.


** Update – August 1, 2016 – We’ve been told that the work is scheduled to be completed at the end of the month. 



** Update – August 31, 2016: End of the month, with no word. Follow-up eluded to calling us on Friday September 2 to schedule completion.



** Update – Monday, September 19, 2016: Another follow-up, and blown off again. Now stretching the delivery window to sometime within 1 year “for warranty work”. It was, albeit, the nicest let down I’ve had from a contractor.


** Update – Wednesday, September 21, 2016: Two days later and nothing…


** Update – October 8: Still nothing from Fox, and I haven’t sent any more reminders.

When Will We Stop Writing?

I keep seeing people debate whether or not kids should learn to write in cursive. I hear it from my wife who’s a teacher. I see it in my social media streams. I see advocates on both sides from both boomer generations and teenagers. My social barometer tells me that the “we don’t need to teach it” camp is a slight majority, which makes sense since the argument is basically over. They don’t teach cursive to kids in most schools anymore.

The most common arguments on each side are pretty simple:

Yes We Need to Teach Cursive Writing

  • It’s important for future generations to be able to read historical documents like the Declaration of Independence, the original Constitution, etc.
  • Writing in cursive is an art form that allows people to share their personality and communicate in a more personal manner
  • I had to learn it, why shouldn’t my kids
  • You have to be able to write in cursive to sign a document

No We Don’t Need to Teach Cursive Writing

  • No one writes that way anymore, its an unnecessary secondary “font”
  • Historical documents have been copied and are available digitally in non-script, I can appreciate the original without having to be able to read it
  • One way of writing a language is enough
  • It wastes unnecessary time to teach cursive, when teachers should be focused on more important things

But were not going to debate whether or not kids should learn cursive. That’s basically been settled, since few school districts require it anymore. I will mention that my wife at least teaches her students how to sign their name, but that’s it.

The reasons on both sides are compelling, but led me to think that some of these exact same points could be used in a future conversation about writing in general. I’m not saying that we will ever get completely away from communicating via written text, but I do wonder about our proclivity towards physical penmanship in the coming years. I mean, I’m writing this in a text editor. And maybe the problem then is how our concept of the word “write” still conjures an image a person, pen in hand, scribbling on a sheet of paper. We still presumably will always need to know how to “write”, but thinking about the traditional definition we realize people just don’t physically write anymore.

Let’s revisit the rationale from cursive only in the context of written words:

We Need to Teach Cursive Writing

  • It’s important for future generations to be able to read documents like the Declaration of Independence, original Constitution, etc.
  • Writing is an art form that allows people to share their personality and communicate in a more personal manner.
  • I had to learn it, why shouldn’t kids?
  • You have to be able to write to sign a document.

We Don’t Need to Teach Cursive Writing

  • No one writes anymore, it’s unnecessary.
  • Documents have been copied and are available digitally in audio/video clips, I can appreciate the content without having to be able to read it
  • Being able to communicate is enough, I don’t need to write to communicate with friends, family, coworkers
  • It wastes unnecessary time to teach hand-writing, when teachers should be focused on more important things

I know that seems pretty absurd. It does to even me, and I wrote them. But, it would seem that writing by hand, by text, keying letters… may not be necessary at all in the future for a lot of people. Even today people are communicating less and less using written characters, because they don’t need to.

In fact, the only writing most people do is in the form of emails and text messages. And even those are being disrupted by features in messaging software like audio messages. It’s now just as simple to send a snapchat video message to someone as it is to type something out. When it inevitably becomes as frictionless to send an audio/video message as it does to send a text, is that when we stop writing?

Think about writing historically; it’s primarily a form of communication that 1) preserves information, and 2) allows for communication across geographies, where speaking in person isn’t possible. And in both of those cases, we can preserve video and audio just as effectively as written text, and messaging is just as efficient than anything written these days.

So I see two big questions coming from this trajectory.

  • Do we stop teaching hand writing? How long will we need to learn how to physically pen letters and words into paper? Will kids skip writing on paper and begin going straight to typing on computers and tablets? If I can recognize the symbol for the letter a on a screen when I’m learning letters, and again on a keyboard when I want to use it in a word, is there really any need for me to learn how to use my hand to craft the symbol on paper?
  • Do we end up minimizing teaching writing entirely? How long will we need to learn to use letters and words in general to communicate, as spoken audio and video communications become more adopted and accessible? In a world where learning comes from books and audiobooks instead of readable pages.

OK, so where does writing fit then?

So if we go down the path of basically all communications and learning being driven from audio and video, where does writing actually fit into our culture? Our ability to write allows us to put thought into what we are communicating. But how often are people communicating something complex or detailed enough that they actually need to plan and edit?

Thus, the biggest case I see for writing is when you’re compiling something thoughtful. Something long form. Something you need to think about, edit, add, rearrange. Just like this article (which I’ve edited quite and rearranged quite a bit). If I just sat down and talked into a camera and microphone it would be a mess, and editing audio and video is exceptionally time intensive.

It’s a crazy thought. And I like words, typed words and hand written words alike. It’s just a crazy thought that feels like it could be closer to reality than maybe we realize. What do you think?

Learning From John Green at Brandcast 2015

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m what some people would call a Nerdfighter. And one of the guys (John Green) that “founded” the vlog that created the community now known as Nerdfighteria recently spoke to an audience of advertisers at Brandcast 2015 (an event held by Google to celebrate YouTube’s 10th birthaversary).

Being a fan of John and a student of marketing, I found this presentation fantastic.

There are some really good insights in his words:

– John and Hank (the Vlogbrothers) make less than 20% of revenue from ads, and it lessens significantly every year

– Creators are finding ways to support their channels outside of advertising, like going on tours, selling merchandise, and crowd funding through sites like Patreon

– He is in the community business building a legion of raving fans, not the eyeballs business (impressions and views), and I know this has been a hot topic for a while now so much that “raving fans” has become buzzword worthy, but the Vlogbrothers actually built the legion of raving fans before talking about it as the model, rather than selling an unexecuted idea

– He doesn’t care how many people see his work, he cares how many people LOVE his work — people who love his work engaged with it, mimic it, use it to create new and inspired things, not just use it as a distraction

I will also add that his last paragraph seems like an appeasement to Google, telling advertisers they can help keep creators funded and viewers will support those business that do. However, I think John knows that that isn’t necessarily true. At least, not as long as they try to approach creators with tradition advertising messages.

What do you think? Do advertisers need YouTubers more? Or vice versa?

Here’s the audio of John’s presentation: https://soundcloud.com/sethmsparks/brandcast-2015-john-green-audio-only

And the transcript: https://medium.com/@johngreen/john-green-s-brandcast-speech-d5b7564773c

Snapchat and MeerKat have (sort of) changed my opinion of vertical video.

This is not a post about MeerKat per se. And it’s not a post about Snapchat per se. But IT IS a post about how both of these apps are influencing a change in perspective on something that has been culturally defined for almost a century.

I have a tiny bit of experience in video production. Like, enough to understand a little bit about how frame composition, tracking, angles, and color impact mood and convey unspoken messages to an audience. Now, albeit I’m not an expert, but I have an immense appreciation not only for what a scene says explicitly, but also for how a shot can compliment or contradict what is being said implicitly.

But something I’ve been adamant about (along with many others) is complaining how stupid people are for shooting vertical video. Our phones don’t capture square video, so orientation matters. There are websites, countless videos, and memes all dedicated to pointing out how flawed vertical video is.

But that hasn’t stopped it’s pervasiveness.

See Snapchat and now MeerKat. Both are functionally built to be used vertically. You can of course turn your phone horizontally, but on the receiving end of one of those snaps, it’s just a bit awkward because you often end up rotating your phone back and forth, vertical>horizontal>vertical and so on.

And as much as I hate vertical video as an abomination to everything holy and professional about film and video in general… I’m trying to find a way to convince myself that it may be ok.

So I started with examining our current environment.

What’s the same?
– TVs are all basically 16×9 aspect ratio based, while some 4:3 sets exist
– Movie theater screens are built to handle 2.33:1 aspect ratio (20.97×9)
– Computer monitors are increasingly 16×9 though some still rock a 4:3 as well

And what’s different?
– Smart phones… gobs of them… on our person at all times of the day. But smartphones typically have the same (or very close to) 16×9 aspect ratio, based again off of legacy HD standards media fitting that.

However… and this is one of those BIG howevers… like, cultural shift however (which others have pointed out well before me)… our human hand is best suited to hold phones vertically. That magical thumb of ours has enough movement to operate the “buttons” of a touchscreen with ease.

“But it’s still not that freaking difficult to turn the phone if you’re taking a photo or shooting video Seth.” I agree, and just because our human physiology says it’s more comfortable, I’m not giving in that easy.

So where next? Well, based on legacy media’s drive to get everything into a 16:9 aspect ratio, I figured that might be a good starting point. Why 16:9?

Turns out there is a long and (if you’re not a weirdo like me) quite boring story of how we got to 16:9. If you want to know all the details, this video is actually a really awesome explanation. But it basically boils down to this. 16:9 was decided on when Kerns H Powers proposed it in the 1980s when HD Standards were being drawn up. You see, 16:9 was a geometic mean between the two most common aspect ratios around at the time: TV (which had an aspect ratio of 4:3) and film (which had an aspect ratio of 2.33). Video of both aspect ratios could fit within a 16×9 frame by either adding letterboxing or zooming fit the screen.

“That’s nice Seth, but regardless, it still seems like video has pretty much always had a horizontal format.” Again, you’re right. But looking back at how the original aspect ratio standard was set in 1909 when William Kennedy Dixon, a staff photographer at Thomas Edison’s lab, was working on a Kinetiscope prototype. Dixon was using Eastman Kodak film with perforations along the sides trying to decide how much of the film would be exposed. He settled on an image that was four perforations high, which led to an image with an aspect ratio of 4×3 (in this case the four perforations are actually the 3 in the ratio, so 5.32 perfs wide and 4 perfs high) or 1.33:1. And we don’t actually know why he chose this aspect ratio, but he did, and it became the standard for all video produced from that point forward.

“But how’d we get from 4:3 to 2.33 or whatever?” Ah, well that one’s simple. It’s for the same reason we keep trying to get 3D and other film gimmicks to work. Theaters and movie studios wanted to create something new and different that would get more butts in seats (I’m sure film makers and cinematographers liked the idea of having more space to play with in the frame and tell a story, but I’m guessing that came second to making more money). So basically, they developed new techniques and eventually new film to shoot movies in the 2.33 format.

“Okay, so some dude’s arbitrary decision to make a video a few perforation high set the standard for us having video that is wider than taller? And we only have extra wide screens because studios wanted to make more money?” I know right? But it sort of seems that way…

And I know that was a long way of getting there, but knowing that a landscape format was a seemingly arbitrary decision, and widescreen was just your average money grab, giving vertical video a second chance seems a little easier. Based on the fact that our hands are better suited for holding smartphones vertically, and the fact that our human heads are more elongated and thus fit a vertical screen more fully than horizontal (even for fat faced folks like me), when video is primarily isolated to hosting and viewing from mobile devices I now think that I might be in favor of it. Or at least, I’m not vehemently against it. So in the cases of Snapchat and MeerKat, go ahead with your vertical video, I promise not to complain.

However, if you’re making something for TV, theater, youtube, or similarly landscape based orientation displays, let’s try to keep it wide, mmkay?

Who knows, at some point in the future TVs may look nothing like they do now, and may be built to handle video of any aspect ratio or orientation. Or holographs. Because science. And because money.

So what do you think? Have your thoughts on vertical video changed if you were a stringent landscape advocate? Still hate it? Let me know below!

Passing Time

It’s interesting to me the difference exposures my wife and I have had to funerals. While she’s only ever been to a couple, I feel like my childhood was full of them. I suppose growing up in a small town, and intrinsically caring for neighbors and classmates as family led me to more funerals than I can begin to remember.

Today we experienced another. A dark sky set a fitting somber mood, and we collected to send off Grandpa Orange Slice. And as I experienced the day, I was reminded of a few things about funerals.

People in rural Iowa respect funeral processions. As we slalomed through the city of Ottumwa and Iowa back roads, people not only yielded, but came to a complete stop to pay respect to a man they didn’t know. Put simply, it’s not something you experience in the city. 

I can make it to the sixth note of taps without tearing up. The sadness of the day compounds it, but there’s so much historical weight that accompanies the notes that it’s overpowers me. Every. Single. Time.

Funerals unequivocally force contemplation of mortality and all that accompanies it. And while I’m comfortable with my own eventual demise (having a parent die when you’re young cements this for you in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere), I’m not immune to that physchilogical law, and thus I think about my own funeral. Rather morbidly I guess, I’ve kept a playlist since high school of songs I want played at my own service. That’s probably weird, but like I said, as a kid, trying to pick the perfect song for your dads funeral does things to you.

Finally, above all, another unexpected loss serves as the foreboding reminder that death can come quickly. Without regard for plans or final words, it steals from us the breathe of life that’s impossible to restore. So for now, and hopefully for some time before my fickle human brain moves on and I need to be reminded again, I’ll be mindful of my interactions and always intend to leave friends and strangers alike with good “bye”s.

Crashing Hangouts

This morning I stumbled my way into a Google Hangout with none other than Joseph Jaffe. You know, the author of two of the best marketing books you’ll find, host of the Across the Sound Podcast, and founder of Evol8tion LLC. I noticed a tweet from him this morning inviting folks to join his Madison to Mountain View hangout. Madison to Mountain View is an Evlo8tion project to bridge the creativity of Mad Men and hyper technosphere of Mountain View California.

I joined the call late, due to a couple hiccups getting the link from twitter to work (it kept taking me to the app store to download Hangouts, which I already had downloaded), and not having setup hangouts on my new phone yet. Once I joined, I found a handful of other participants who were talking about tech innovation and how marketers perceive Millennials. The most poignant thought in the couple minutes of conversation I heard was that we tend to forever see Millenials as they were when they were defined as Millenials. Even as they grow up, marketers tend to first think of them first as college kids before we can accurately reimagine them as leaders of households with kids and pets and discretionary spending. It’s definitely something to be cognizant of the next time you picture Boomers as empty-nesting globe-trotters… they’re older than you imagine them too.

After the Hangout, Jaffe was cool enough to hang around for a minute and explained that they were in the early phases of developing this live water cooler approach where they convened weekly on Tuesday mornings. He said that they were going to start taking it more public in the future, which makes sense in a content saturated world where we all need to find new ways to connect more intimately with others. So, if you’re into marketing and technology, and want to listen to smart folks conversation, watch for Jaffe’s Twitter feed next Tuesday morning for the link.

My 2015 Personal Balanced Scorecard

Every year I try to assess my lifestyle, and determine the specific actions I want to take to improve certain elements of my life. Those assessments lead to my annual personal balanced scorecard. This is my third year completing a personal balanced scorecard, and I feel like each year I design something a little better. And each year, I hold myself to my goals a little more tightly.

I’m hoping this year I’ll be able to actually reach the health goals I’ve been working towards for too long now. Weigh is a piece of that, but not the entire focus.

Alright, here goes:

– read – 1 book per month :: (can coincide with prof/relationships)
– blogs – write 2x monthly personally :: #
– meditate – for 15 min daily :: #
– Rss – marketing gold cleared out daily

– weight – 2/1:275, 4/1:250, 6/1:235
– fitness – 30 min active p/ day #
– fitness – 10k steps p/ day
– therapy – stretch/exercise back 20 min p/ day #

– prayer – morning and night
– meditation – 15 min daily ::
– fun – video games or movie once a week

– wife – dedicate 15 min to talking every night
– son – play with for 15 min every night
– son – email monthly update
– daughter – read with/talk to for 20 min every night
– daughter – email monthly update
– empathy – read 1 non-fiction book quarterly ::

1 – pay off cc debt
2 – emergency fund reach $15k
3 – save $3k for Disney trip

– blog – write 2x professional monthly :: #
– read – marketing gold blog roll daily ::
– read – 1 business book per quarter ::
– vlog – record 2 blogs per month #
– gamecast (video game podcast) – record 4 gamecasts per month #

:: same action covers multiple facets
# action can be scheduled for habit/tracking

I’ll likely edit these through the year based on changes in my environment, and potential other factors that could limit or open up opportunities. I’ll be checking in monthly to determine how I’m tracking related to these goals as well. This year I plan to hold myself publicly accountable on here as well, posting my progress along the way. Hoping that turns into a motivator for me.

So that’s what’s new. Do you do anything like this? What of my list do you like or dislike? Let me know in the comments!