Austin is just an awesome city. There's just something about it that attracts me to it. I can't really say why I like it there so much. I'm not really a clubber or a bar hopper, so the 6th Street Entertainment District really doesn't do it for me (although it was definitely fun to stroll through there with all of the live music and partygoers). I enjoy live music, but I'm not fanatical about it (although it was awesome hearing live music all around the 6th Street area after sunset - from bands on the street to bands in open bars). I like window shopping about as much as any guy does (but it was definitely cool hitting up the row of quirky shops on Congress Ave.). I'm not really a food snob nor am I really picky about what's "good" and what's "bad" (but I must say, the TexMex in Austin simply trumps anything we get here in NJ).
But I leave you with a badass video from the Austin Zoo during Tiger feeding time:
While small and a bit run down, the Austin Zoo is otherwise awesome in that the crowds are small, the commercialization is low, the peacocks are just free roaming...very awesome, and they have a huge collection of large cats (not to mention a black bear display that is practically asking for a lawsuit because you can literally reach your hand in there and pet the cuddly guy).
So I'm back in Utah. Today is day one of Programmathon VII. This time, we have two new faces, Dan and Thuy (all the ways from Vietnam!)
The highlight of any of the Programmathons are the meals and awesome sightseeing that we get to do while we're out in Utah (some trips being more memorable than others) to break up the long hours of work and occassional heated technical debates. Of course Brad would probably disagree: the highlights of the Programmthons are really the 14 hour days we pull to get things done.
We ended up at Park City for dinner on day one.
The steak at Grub Steak was pretty good (and so was the atmosphere), but the waiter totally oversold the awesome-ness of their steaks. 7.5/10.
Luckily, I ended up with a Honda Odyssey instead of the Ford Freestar I was supposed to get. This thing has some guts...no problem hauling 7 full grown adults up some pretty steep climbs.
Park City is a quaint little area. The main street is lined with all sorts of eateries, expensive art galleries (expensive). From left (above): Jim, Dave, Thuy, Me, Dan, and Brad.
More pictures with the locals.
Ice cream at Cow's. Very good stuff.
Seems like the calm before the storm. Only a few days left to wrap up version 1.
Warning: massive brain dump ahead...
As I was laying down to sleep and having a discussion with my wife - much to her dismay - the topic of her current graduate class came up and she mentioned how much she enjoyed just sitting down and writing for 45 minutes each class. I found it strange that she should put it in such a perspective. I mean, there's nothing preventing her from taking the time to sit down and write for 45 minutes each day (and she did keep a journal up until maybe 3 or 4 years ago) as surely, countless minutes of her day (and any average person's day) is spent doing mindless things like watching television or eating or something else equally useless.
The idea of commitment chains occurred to me as I was using an analogy about exercise and trying to convince her that writing for 45 minutes each day is relatively trival compared to working out. Think about it: in exercising, one starts a chain of commitments which can seem unconsciously daunting. To exercise is to sweat, to sweat is to necessitate an immediate shower (well, unless you don't mind body odor or the salty stickiness of sweat), to exercise necessitates a larger load of laundry, and most importantly, in this proposition, is that it necessitates a healthy lifestyle lest that exercise went for naught.
It is a relatively large commitment chain to make simply by exercising and perhaps this is why so many people find it so difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle: the weight of this commitment chain is simply too heavy. On the other hand, writing for pleasure carries little commitment of any kind. You write if you want to, you don't if you are not in the mood.
What's the point? No point, really I guess if there was a point, then perhaps it is that very often in life, we don't really take into consideration how little commitment it takes to do what we want to do and do what we enjoy. We also fail to realize how these low commitment activities have a profound effect on our lives as they help us feel like we've done something. Simple things like taking a stroll around the block, watering some flowers, laying down and watching the clouds pass, sitting with a cat on the grass, drinking a cup of lemonade on a hazy summer afternoon. Perhaps that's the secret to finding balance in life: to have a healthy mixture of tasks with long commitment chains (work, family, health) mixed with activies of low commitment (I'm mixed on whether blogging is the former or the latter, but I do find it constructive to put thoughts to text some times).
Shifting gears now.
Prior to this discussion, we had another discussion about how we visualize dates. I was thinking back to something that I had once read about how to interview tech candidates: propose that some object typically comes in a set of 14. Now 5 additional elements are introduced...ask the candidate how he or she would organize the new elements.
Some people, like my wife, would tend to place the 5 elements "below" the 14 elements and line them up and start to form a multidimensional array - or a matrix, if you will. Some people like me, would visualize it as a separate block of elements, but in a linear manner...more like containment where the first set contains 14 elements and the second set contains 5, but they are part of yet a larger set. It is less of a repeating pattern and more of a general grouping.
This manifested itself clearly in the way in which we think about and visualize dates. For her, as day of the week is important, she tends to organize her events and key dates in a typical calendar fashion and in fact, she can visualize it so well, that given one event in a month, she can probably tell you the day of the week of any other date in the month nearly instantly. She views the set of 7 days in a week as a part of a matrix much as a calendar is typically visualized.
In my case, as day of the week is generally not that important, I visualize date and time as linear and quite abstract (I think the most natural way to think about it since it really is linear and absolute...it is only the incidental cyclical nature of our orbit around our Sun that defines constructs like seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years and so on). In my case, I am terrible at remembering dates and I am terrible at remembering order; I only roughly index that I have something to do some time in the future. Ask me what I'll be doing two weeks from now, and it'll take me a good amount of time to figure that out whereas my wife's response will be nearly instantaneous. I tend to think of time in blocks where I have commitments (meetings, errands, and so on) and blocks where I don't have commitments.
When you really think about it, time itself is completely abstract (what is it? will it end? when did it start? how much of it is there? what does it look like? what is the absolute unit of time? can it really even be counted?), but the organization and demarcatinon of time into units seems...weird and useless to me; I am fine thinking about it in the abstract (i.e. "some time in the future, I need to do this") and not as an absolute (i.e. "on such and such date at such and such time, I need to do this" or "x units from now, I need to do this").
There is a parallel in my profession: as a software developer, there is nothing tangible about the constructs that I build; the contructs that I build are purely abstract in nature: every GUI, every construct in software, is but an abstraction of numerous lines of code - or, is it the other way around? Software is but one layer of abstraction on top of another...modern day software could not exist without the huge levels of abstractions that have been built to allow programs to be written efficiently. Buttons are not buttons, they are rectagles. Rectangles are not rectangles, they are arrangements of lines. Lines are not lines, but merely a linear set of pixels. But in essence, there is nothinig to grasp and to utilize to visualize proportion, all of it is purely hypothetical and kind of "uploaded" into my brain as a set of objects, relationships, and other abstract constructs when I sit down at my desk in the morning.
In actuality, I find this process of uploading and unloading quite unpleasant (particularly the unloading part). I have been told by my coworkers, wife, and family members that I can become quite unruly when I'm involved in my work. The reality of it is that when I'm in my groove, unloading and then loading so much abstraction and so much data causes some sort of mental instability...I just get frustrated at the individual forcing the purge or I just lose my groove and have to kind of veg for the rest of the day...I simply cannot be constructive.
From an observer's perspective, I think this makes me seem like a loner or anti-social or if a colleague is coming to me with questions, it may seem like I'm impatient or uncooperative. In reality, my bitter reaction is more of a defensive mechanism to kind of keep myself from having to go through these periods of derailment as in my case it's not a temporary derailment...it's like a long term derailment once it happens as there is simply too much data to store and reload that it's taxing on my mind.
For this reason, I think I've recently been in some hot water with some coworkers. I simply don't take afternoon interruptions very well as that is the time when it is hardest to recover from derailment at that point.
Of course, the whole reason that this discussion and train of thought came up was the movie Stranger Than Fiction (it's an absolutely brilliant screenplay with an absolutely excellent performance by Will Ferrell (everytime you think he's going to break into his "normal" genres, he surprises you and keeps his acting true to the character...a brilliant perfomance)).
This movie draws my attention on various levels: it is at once a deep inspection of what it means to live and to be alive, it asks what exactly is the scope of one life in the grander scheme of the universe, on some level it is a movie about religion (I haven't really fully formulated this part of it yet), and of course, it's a touching romantic comedy .
I also found the specials (and this isn't the first time) to contain some very insightful information on teamwork and project management that would apply to almost any field (but that's a discussion for another day).
What also caught my attention was how director Marc Forster and the visual effects team realized how Harold's thoughts were visualized with these planar "screens" with metrics, text, and data layered together. It's much the same way I visualize data, code, structures, and tasks, all on virtual screens that I slide around, stack, layer, and intermingle. I now realize that there is no organization to how I think about these constructs and abstractions...I simply see them in my mind as if before me was a stack of cards strewn about and yet I am able to reach out and pluck the ace of spades at will with no effort.
Maintaining such mental order requires a lot of effort and a lot of concentration. I think it is because of the amount of effort required to work the way that I do, that I am so unpleasant when interrupted (much to the dismay of my wife, mother, and coworkers). And believe me, it's not that I don't like to help others with the development issues or educate other developers and team members, rather such tasks are not my primary concern and shifting gears is extremely difficult when you have to maintain such large abstractions and structures in the mind.
So of course, the question is, what is the solution? Well, perhaps I need to invest some time in some organizational books. Perhaps I need a whiteboard to help unload some of the data and make it easier to reload as well. Perhaps I need a bigger desk so I can scribble more and keep better notes.
Well, I think that about wraps this up. Possibly not the most coherent or well organized entry, but it contained data would have kept me up all night if I didn't unload it
There used to be a time, decades ago, when there was only one telephone carrier and everyone was forced to use it, regardless of whether the service or price sucked.
Nowadays we have a much greater variety of choices from AT&T to Verizon to MCI for local and long distance calls. We also have some new comers to the game such as Comcast and Cablevision who offer telephone service over cable.
For the longest time, my mother was using MCI for her local and long distance. For whatever reason, she suddenly decided (as she is oft inclined to do) that it cost too much. We decided to switch to AT&T as she felt that it was a trustworthy and reliable brand. Little did we know that the new AT&T seems to outsource its customer service, charges a hefty connection fee (even when no physical connection setup was required), and she ended up spending exactly the same each month as she did with MCI...
Jump forward a few months after the AT&T debacle (they were still trying to get her to pay a connection fee...). After a year, her promotional rate with Comcast for Internet connectivity jumped dramatically. At this time, her best option - of course - was to switch over to the Comcast Triple Play. We were assured that the cable telephony was a good choice and that the battery backup on the modem meant that even when the power went out, we would still have dialing capabilities.
Of course, what they failed to mention was that if the Internet connectivity gets flaky (as is oft the case with Comcast), so does your ability to use the phone...D'oh! Well, it should have been obvious to me, but I dunno, I was thinking that maybe the modem had special capabilities that allowed it to operate indepenently of the Internet connectivity. Turns out that every once in a while, we'll pick up the phone and there will be no dial tone because the modem loses connection or the DNS servers are down somewhere on the grid or some other issue. It also turns out that the special telephony modem that we have to use is noticeably slower at servicing Internet traffic compared to my previous Motorola (blazing fast); there is now a noticeable lag when frequenting some of the web pages in my daily queue.
For the time being, the promotional price is great: about $33/month ($99/month for Triple Play for one year) for unlimited long distance to anywhere in the US. This is much better than what Verizon or AT&T charges for the same features (about $50/month). What they don't always make so clear is that after a year, the price jumps dramatically to $140.95/month or roughly the same price for telephone service as with Verizon or AT&T...except without the reliability of the good old PTSN.
If you really sit down to think about it, that comes out to roughly $600/year for phone service. That's PS3 territory.
But there is an alternative, there is a brave new world in telephony: Skype (okay, it's really not that new, but I don't personally know anyone who uses Skype exclusively of landlines (although I know a few who use cellular lines exclusively)).
I signed up for a free trial at the end of last year that gave me 30 days of SkypeOut for free. I found the service to be generally acceptable and convenient (since I spend almost all day in front of the computer anyways).
But what makes Skype even more compelling are the new accessories which are being developed around it: standalone (no PC requried) devices which allows one to use Skype as a total replacement for landelines.
- The latest DECT technology
- Multi-handset capable (up to 4 each)
- Dual mode (supports PTSN and Skype)
- Don't require PC to use
What seals the deal is that SkypeIn, which allows you to get a number that any landline or cellular line can dial and features unlimited calls anywhere in the US to landlines and cellular lines (and of course free calls to any other Skype user), costs only $60/year. So for a tenth of the cost of traditional landlines or cable telephony, I can get roughly the same quality services and I can call from my computer. I also think that the portability is also cool as hell...I can answer my phone anywhere in the world as long as I'm connected to the Internet.
I convinced my wife that when we move this time (just about 20 days to go), we're gonna try to go cold turkey with Skype (we're went with the Netgear phone) and see if it'll work for us. We both make long duration long distance calls pretty regularly for our jobs so it'll be interesting to see how it works out. For us, 911 capabilities is not an issue as we both have cell phones. Dependency on the Internet connection is also not a problem as it's no worse than Comcast or Optimum and whenever we tend to be on long important calls, we also tend to be in some sort of net conference...so having the reliability of PTSN is kind of pointless if the net meeting is down.
So overall, I'm excited to stick it to the man
I'll keep this site posted with my review and experiences as I spend more time with Skype and the Netgear phone.
Argh! Chalk this one up to poor product description, packaging, or something like that, but it wasn't clear at all that one needs to purchase SkypeOut/Skype Unlimited to receive the unlimited outbound calls. In essence, $60 only buys an inbound number and unlimited inbound calls...outbound calls with SkypeIn are still charged at local/long distance rates.
I'm kind of conflicted...on the one hand, dude, it's $90 for a whole year. On the other hand: Damn these people for not clearly advertising their services and costs and using sensible bundles to do so.
- Cut veggies into large sizes. This makes it easier to work with them and not have them fall through the grate.
- Put small items onto skewers. Items like shrimp just won't work on the grill without a skewer.
- If you're making chicken or other meats low in fat, brush the grilling surface with some oil first.
- Make bigger fires. Charcoal is surprisingly difficult to light without lighter fluid. Do it right the first time and make a big-ass fire. Put some newspaper under the coals.
- Enjoy yourself!
I just finished watching the documentary 49 Up.
There's something quite moving in watching people mature from 7 to 49 in a matter of minutes and to see the change in their ideals, dreams, and their lives. It was fascinating watching these individuals age and see how their lives took shape.
It's equally fascinating as you start to reflect on where you've been and where you shall be in more years.
If there's one thing I've taken from the movie, is the importance of being happy in your circumstances and making the best of your lot in life. Dreams come and go, as do opportunities. Mistakes are made and there trying times are a certainty, but in the end, it's important to realize the brevity of your existence. It is easy to blame circumstance and others for one's misfortune and hardships, but ultimately, the life is your own and you must do with it what you will.
The Dalai Lama writes in The Meaning of Life:
Shantideva reasons that if something can be done to fix a situation, there is no need to worry. Whereas on the other hand, if there is nothing that can be done, there is no use in worrying.
If there is one person in the series that embodied this the most, I think it would have to be Neil, who, for a good part of his adult life, seemed to wander aimlessly.
Neil turned out to be one of the most interesting of the entire group. At seven he was funny, full of life and hope. At 14 he was doing well in comprehensive school but was more serious and subdued. In one of the biggest shocks of the series however, by the time of 21 Up he was homeless in London, having dropped out of Aberdeen University after one term, and was living in a squat and finding work as he could on building sites.
At 35 amazingly, he had turned his life around to a great degree and found his calling in politics.
For some of the kids, like Andrew, life turned out exaclty as scripted (either by themselves or by their parents). For others, it is a meandering journey where childhood dreams are often crushed by the realities of the world. The key, I think, is to be able to accept these defeats, take a lesson from them, and to see the opportunities ahead instead of the failures in the past.
The thread that struck me the most about the lives of each of the individuals in the documentary is the common importance of family and how it is a driving force in finding that peace. Of the subjects, only Neil did not marry or have children; at 49, this lack of a family of his own and the troubled relationship with his parents, was perhaps one of his own greatest regrets in his life.
In reflecting on my own thoughts on this subject, I find that today, I'm much less enthused about the idea of being a father then I was when I was a teenager. Not because I don't like kids or that I don't want the experience of being a father - one day - but it just feels like I'm still a bit too selfish to my own needs to be a father. I like living my life on my schedule.
49 Up is an excellent documentary that I think all young adults should watch and study. I think it reveals a lot about how fleeting one's perception of the world is and how it evolves over time. It gives insight into what it really means to find happiness and to find purpose in life.
I saw Thank You for Smoking over the weekend, a great movie, and I wasn't planning on writing anything specific about it, but an article that I read this morning (and I guess thinking about the current circumstances of my life) changed my mind.
In an article on SI.com, Chris Mannix discusses how Jason Kidd, perhaps the greatest point guard of this generation (even though Nash has more MVPs to his name), has made a career or making his teammates better. The most interesting observation that Mannix makes is:
For his part, Kidd relishes the idea of not only making his teammates better, but also serving as a human lottery ticket.
Well, what exactly does this mean, "human lottery ticket"? Quoting Jason Kidd, he writes:
"I loved playing with all those guys," says Kidd as he walks down the tunnel towards the parking lot. "Rex Chapman. Shawn Marion. Kerry Kittles. Scalabrine. K-Mart. When you can help a guy make a better life for his family, it's the best feeling."
To go off on a tangent, for a moment, at some point in the last year, I was considering leaving Zorch as there were other opportunities available to me with better compensation overall. But of course, there isn't that satisfaction of being a core component of a small startup. At some point, the CEO of the company came out for a meeting with a client and had some time to meet me for lunch. Perhaps the most interesting concept that I took away from this meeting was his statement that he's not in it for himself, he's in it to build the wealth of those around him.
And indeed, our employees are all a close knit bunch with one of our developers having been with him for over a decade through at least two companies.
In a sense, he has a Kidd-esque quality about him.
In quoting Lawrence Frank on what makes Kidd so great, Mannix writes:
"He takes away the thinking process for his teammates. He gets the ball to them on time, on target, so they can just go into their move."
Similarly, I like to think that our CEO (and any good leader) does the same: he creates the conditions for success by taking away the barriers for individual success; he makes it easy to do what you know how to do.
Okay, so back on the topic at hand. So what does Jason Kidd have to do with Thank You for Smoking? Well, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), the protagonist of this movie, is asked how he can do what he does, knowing that the entity he fronts produces a product that kills thousands of people a day. His justification? He's effortlessly good at it and it pays the mortgage.
In a sense - and I know it's quite cynical - life in the modern world (especially for my generation) boils down to doing everything you can to make that monthly payment; mortgages are a painful reality for the vast majority of us.
So what is the conclusion to draw from all of this? I guess this is really a post on career advice: find someone to work for or work with that will be your "human lottery ticket"
How could I have forgotten to post about this?
To begin with, gosh, could they have used worse pictures of her?
But to be honest, it's an extremely proud moment for our entire family (my mom was really going off the walls over this).
My wife is kind of a dynamic person in this respect: you would never guess, just talking to her, that she has a fairly high level grasp of mathematics (not to mention that in person, she looks like she's 18 (especially when she goes with the curly hair)). I was quite suprised to see some of her coursework in psychology and education which had her in classes similar to mid-high level computer science math courses (probability and statistics).
As a teacher, she's one of those increasingly rare ones that won't take any crap from the students or the parents...she's very straight up to the parents about her expectations of them and how their role in the development of their child (at least while they're in her class) is crucial to the child's success. She has a whole crazy system in place to make parents and their kids accountable.
So if your school district is intereted in this Singapore math business, do take a look at her SDE profile
Programmathon was fairly successful. While I enjoy the freedom of working offsite, it's definitely good to get together once in a while and get face to face with everyone (although my gastrointestinal tract begs to differ).
But of course, no trip with Jim is complete without a trip to Hooters
In the Salt Lake City vicinity, the mountains are omnipresent. It's very beautiful out here (but dry as a desert (I started to bleed under my fingernails due to the dryness)).
Of course, we had to visit the Standard Supply company nearby the office where they had a giant toilet (for the obese I assume). Brady labeled this portrait: Stinking Man.
Being Monday, everyone had to go watch 24 (except me as I don't really watch TV) so we didn't go out to dinner, which saved my body from yet another caloric bombardment. I was too tired anyways, so I plopped down and went to bed early.
On day 4, we went up to "Snow Bird" to have lunch at a lodge there. It was absolutely beautiful. Some of those runs looked incredible...but yeah, I'm too much of a pansy to ski Basketball for me, thanks.
As beautiful as the scenery is out there and as nice a place as Utah seems to be, I'm glad to be back home in New Jersey. My skin and fingers are doing better in just a day back home (be sure to bring some moisturizer with urea if you go out there) as the air out there is just so incredibly arid. It's also kind of weird being in a social setting where 98% of the population is so homogeneous.
One thing that I've learned on this trip is that mini-vans actually aren't that bad. The Sienna was quite peppy for such a large vehicle and rode very well. It even made it through 3-4 inches of snow without issue.
It was rough getting out of Newark. A freak snowstorm delayed the landing of the plane that I was supposed to board and the subsequent snow buildup necessitated de-icing. I touched down about three and a half hours behind schedule. To make matters worse, the Hertz counter where my car was reserved was manned by perhaps some of the most incompetent people. Ever. There were probably 6 groups in front of me and it took me at least an hour and fifteen minutes just to get my car >:-[ There's something weird about driving a mini-van when you're not expecting it. While I was supposed to have a Corolla reserved, the only thing they had in the same price class was a Toyota Sienna. This is actually the first time that I've driven a mini-van...it's kind of weird since I'm used to smaller cars.
We had lunch at Rubio's, a Mexi-Cali place that specialized in fish tacos. I had a grilled salmon taco, which was delicious (out east, we only have the kinda shitty Baja Fresh).
Dinner was at Joe's Crab Shack, a great seafood place where Jim (our CTO) finally found a satisfactory martini in Utah. Unfortunately, they also pulled the birthday-boy schtick on me and I had to dance around on a broomstick horse and cowboy hat (I have pictures, but it's just too embarassing)...
This morning, I woke up to find 3 inches of snow on the ground. But by that time, I was already dressed and ready to go to the gym. I wasn't too excited by the prospect of trying to drive in the dark to a gym which I only had rough directions to in 3 inches of snow in a mini-van with California plates...
But I'm glad I did. I ended up at the new Lifetime Fitness gym here. DAAAAAAAAAAYUM. This is the nicest gym I've ever seen. It's bigger than the Costco back home. The indoor pool had two huge, twisty water slides like the ones you find at amusement parks. The basketball court was full size, well lit, and they actually had good basketballs, too. And the workout floor: at least 100 weight machines and wall to wall plasma TVs. It was kind of weird being the only person in such a huge building...I think I would move out here just for this gym
I ended up at the office earlier than anyone else (or so I thought) so I killed some time by writing my name in the snow...
So begins day two of Programmathon II...
It turns out that Jim had already arrived at the office. He saw my snow writing and walked downstairs and let me in
We had lunch on day two at some Chinese place in the food court at a nearby mall. Damn that gave me gas (actually, I think eating out anywhere give's me gas).
After a long day of programming, we ended up having dinner at Johnny Carrino's. I checked the score on the Colts-Pats game and it looked like the Pats were gonna blow the Colts out.
As you can see, it was my birthday again. Forced against my will, I finished the free chocolate cake and ice-cream.