Thursday, January 28, 2010

DST is surprisingly complicated when you look at it in detail.

Countries that do observe DST may begin and end DST on different dates AND those dates can change from year to year.

Tell me about it, right? ... well at least I've never had to use VSS. Oh god.

Screw this, I'm going to go program some blinky lights and push buttons. All within good ol' America/Los_Angeles.

(... aaaaand this post made sense to like six people.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vive le Suisse?

Hey. Apparently I'm going to the Olympics. This is pretty fantastic. I live in Seattle, which is pretty close to Vancouver, but when my dad suggested "hey why don't you go to the olympics?" I said "nah it will be a huge crowded mess" because I am such an oldman! Given the choice, I tend to go home. Catie, however goes big. In this case she is of course right, because it's the Olympics.

But you can't go to the Olympics and not see any Olympics! So we have tickets to a thing. Specifically, hockey. More specifically, qualifying rounds women's hockey. Even more specifically, Sweden vs. Switzerland.

I've never seen a women's hockey game! In fact, it's been forever since I've seen any hockey games. I think it involves some face-offs, and maybe icing, and occasionally a penalty box. (do female hockeyers fight? I remember being mildly traumatized as a child when two hockeyers just ripped off their gloves and started punching each other.)

And Sweden vs. Switzerland? I've never been to the former, and I've had one mediocre experience in the latter. They're both supposed to be wonderful though. And I really digged my time in Austria and Germany, and they're pretty close, right, so I'm thinking Switzerland it is. I must learn some French hockey cheers. Like "I hope you score a goal" or "good face-off!" or "it was pretty lucky you did not get called for icing there."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I'm moving, but by god I'm staying in the same neighborhood.

or, Sometimes (not often) the antidote for programming is more programming, or, I have a button that does ANYTHING!

I was feeling crummy tonight because I couldn't get anything to work at work, and I had the evening free to do a thing I want to do. One of the things I had wanted to do was string together a bunch of software to make a thing that lets you talk to your phone. After my dismal failure to do anything other than stare all gaggley-like at various documentations last time I tried that, I was in no mood to do so again.

Another thing I wanted to do is make a button that talks to my computer. And yet another thing I had wanted to do was check out Metrix Create Space, a place with a neat idea that is four blocks away from me. A plan for this evening materialized.

But how do you go into a place where people know how to do electronics, and say "hey I want to do some electronics I think?" ... well, just like that. There were only a couple people there, and I went in and talked to Morgan, the guy running the shop, and outlined my plan. "I want to make... a button... that I can press... that will do something on my computer?" He knew exactly what I needed: an Arduino, a mini bread board, some wires and buttons and resistors.

Three hours later, I had it fully working. I press this button, it runs a script that opens a text file and inputs the current time. Remarkable! Right now I can maybe soon use it to track sleep schedules. In the future I can use it to do anything! This is super exciting.

So big thanks to Metrix for being awesome super cool and wonderful (and I can do electronics without ever having to go to radio shack!), to the folks behind Arduino for making a cool thing that is really easy to use and only $40, to the folks behind Processing for making a really great and simple language that I can't wait to explore more, and to Morgan for all the help.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

I think what happened is the Belgian beer absorbed all my confusion and floated away.

I woke up at 6 AM this morning. I think this is because I drank a lot of Belgian-style beer last night. It was pretty fab. 30-some brewers from the area brought their weird, inventive, delicious small-batch Belgian beers. Particularly big ups to Issaquah Brewhouse Polywog Grand Cru, Anacortes Sour Brown, Elysian Toro Oro Yerba Mate Tripel, and Scuttlebutt 777 Tripel. Yeah, I know you probably don't live here and even if you do you probably won't find these; I'm writing them down as much for my reference as yours.

Oh yeah and then I juggled beer glasses in exchange for waffles for me and friends. Being an odd hero once in a while is really a wonderfully fun thing. I'm kind of embarrassed to be so excited about this but it was quite the high point of my week.

So! This morning. 6AM, can't get back to sleep, and I'm excited, and I'm excited about work. Why? (hangovers are not usually exciting.) Here's why: because I've found a slightly smaller niche. Now, as Cal Newport of Study Hacks will tell you, being a generalist is difficult, not fun, and not worth it. Specialize, specialize, specialize; get an A+++ (or an "A*", not to be confused with the search algorithm) in one thing, not an A- in 5 things. If you're looking for an engineer to build you a user interface, you won't want a "software engineer" who can kinda do anything okay; you'll want a "UI engineer" who builds sweet user interfaces but doesn't have as much experience in backendy things.

Thus, I declare myself a UI engineer. Now, this is not because I'm looking to pump up my resume or look for another group or job (far from it!), but I think that by doing so, I can continue to focus in one direction instead of getting 5% knowledge of 20 different things. I'll get more expertise in that area, and get to the "I know how to do this" stage faster, which is really the goal here anyway.

Why did I not decide this before? I thought it wasn't legit. In school I was never drawn to robots or graphics or like finance or anything. So I went for AI/machine learning and then natural language processing, but it turns out math really doesn't turn me on either. I just like to make programs! That people can use! I was never convinced that that was a good answer, though. Everyone likes that, right? Well, I'm thinking now that "making programs for people to use" is exactly the Human-computer interaction/user interface engineering that has a whole master's program at CMU dedicated to it. That's pretty legit.

Also I think I was confused, or just afraid to jump in. If I work primarily on UI's, maybe I'll miss fun I could be having with ... data processing! Or database management, or production systems, or machine learning or stats or ... but I don't think it's likely. And maybe I do, maybe I change course. Life goes on.

Anyway, I think UI work fits with my other likings: I like to see the effect of what I do quickly, I like the value to be measured in "how slick it is", not "how many QPS it sends to which backend servers", and I like making something happen the first 10 times, not the next 999,990 times. (This may be heresy at Google. But hey, even The Goog needs people to put frontends on those megalithic MapReduces.)

And what if making sweet UI's isn't my passion? Read more Study Hacks; whether it's truly my passion doesn't matter. In fact, it's a nonsense question. There is no magic "passion" out there for me to find someday; there's only what I construct for myself. And it's also true that when I'm better at something, I enjoy it more. So that's my goal at work: get into UI work as much as possible, learn how to make it great, and become the Jeff Dean of UI engineering.

(any nudges/book recommendations/class ideas would be gladly accepted! note that I'm talking UI engineering, not UI design (...yet.))

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Really? I'm a... ?

So I'm looking for religions, learning about religions, practicing religions, right? And my current one has been Nichiren Buddhism. I've blogged about it a couple times, but a quick refresher: it's a relatively recent form of Buddhism (~700 yrs old) started by this guy Nichiren, who read all the Buddhist teachings and discovered/realized/decided that the Lotus Sutra was the important one. The Buddha (supposedly) said "All the other teachings until now were nice, but they're not the total real deal; this is it." And so Nichiren teaches that the thing to do, the way to practice, is to chant "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" (loosely, "I dedicate myself to the Lotus Sutra, or the universal law of cause and effect"). In this way, you'll call out your own Buddha-nature, your best self, and achieve your goals and get all enlightened.

I like it, for the most part. Chanting, meditating, whatever, it's all a daily practice, and specific enough that I've been able to keep it up daily for about 4 months now. Their philosophy is a little vague, but nothing they believe in is distasteful to me. It's down to earth and easy to follow: you don't chant to clear your mind or get rid of suffering, you chant to achieve your goals. (you can even chant for a new car if you want. the idea, I think, is that in the course of chanting for a new car, you'll realize that it's not really a car you wanted. or maybe you do actually need a car, because you need to get to work or something, in which case, why not chant for a car?) As such, it's even psychologically explainable. (your chanting aligns your mind in one direction, which is probably the best way to achieve anything.)

But something isn't sitting quite right with me. The philosophy is not just vague, it's floaty. I feel like I can argue any one position or another with these folks, and eventually we'll just get back to "you have to bring out your own buddha nature, be the best you, and then you'll do fine at everything." Or you just say "chant nam myoho renge kyo" and you're always right. It feels churchy, like old Methodist church I used to go to: there's a lot of emphasis on community over substance, and I just feel kind of silly sometimes. (and silly along with everyone else, not silly in my own way; that's another topic I guess) It's rather connected to political and worldly things; there's this Soka Gakkai (an organization of Nichiren Buddhists) and a political party called New Komeito, and Nichiren Buddhists ~= Soka Gakkai ~= New Komeito. Not to mention the weird cult of personality around the president of the Soka Gakkai, Daisaku Ikeda.

But the overarching theme of this weirdness didn't hit me until I came across a mention of Nichiren in "Hitching Rides with Buddha" by Will Ferguson (great funny travelogue book, I'm a fan), where he labels Nichiren with the f-word. No, not that f-word... worse. And I realized that he's right... I've been following a religion... that's f-- fuh--


It's true: they're fundamentalist Buddhists. Selectively tossing out most of the original teachings? check. Super welcoming to everyone and easy to follow? check. Has megachurches, including one in Seattle? check. (I've been there. It seats like 1000.) Evangelical? check. (Catie noted this when I mentioned that one of Nichiren Buddhism's goals is "Kosen-rufu", defined loosely as "world peace by the spreading of Nichiren Buddhism"; I kinda laughed it off and have mostly ignored the whole kosen-rufu deal) Aforementioned cult of personality? check.

So what? So ultimately it's not my one true path. Well, I hardly expected to find the one religion that would be.

And here's the thing: it's not that bad. Sure, fundamentalist Christianity tends to be terrifying, fundamentalist Islam more so, but this variety of fundamentalist Buddhism? It's as far left as most any religion I know, there aren't weird rules where you can't drink or smoke or dance on Sundays, they don't hate on gay people or Jews or anyone else. (heck, they're up-front about the fact that you could probably be Buddhist and some other religion at the same time.) The religion has drastically improved the lives of many people in the group.

So rock on, Nichiren Buddhists. I'll probably slowly fall out of the group here; I like the people, the beliefs are just a little bit off for me right now. Careful where you go (especially with politics, evangelism, and that guy Daisaku), but overall, I'm more with you than against you.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Life Pursuit, and this is not about Belle and Sebastian

(but sometimes I pick up lyrics or song and want to say them a lot, but in such a way that people know that i'm referencing something. Like "everything in its right place." or "I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying!")

Okay, I've been posting angsty stuff about "aah my life's purpose" etc. Here's the deal. I want to progress spiritually. How to do so? Well, if you want to learn math, you take a math class, read a math book, do math problems. I want to learn spirit, grand truths, eternal oneness, how to avoid suffering, my own buddha-nature, how to follow god perfectly, and the non-duality of all things. That leaves me with three questions:
1. What's the path? (what's the book, and where do I take a class?)
2. How do I practice it? (what are the "math problems"?)
3. Do I have to go sit on a mountain for 12 years?

As for #1, well, I'm on A path right now, whether or not it's The Best. I would like to know that it's a pretty good path, because what if I'm trying to get 100% there but at this rate I'll only achieve 2% per decade? (numbers are ridiculous, but bear with me; some paths are slower than others and will not result in reasonable change in my lifetime, so it's worth considering...) #2 is perhaps the most immediately interesting. (And #3, well, hopefully not. I guess #1 and #2 will determine that.)

So about #2. A practice! Doing something every day will change your life more than doing a big thing once. But what to do? Some people do prayer, some do mindfulness meditation, compassion meditation, chanting, yoga, weeding the garden, whatever. Any of these would probably be fine. But I want the essential kernel of the practice, not the husk of accumulated baggage. I want Christian mysticism without all the creeds and bible verses and catechism and stuff, Buddhism without the six this and twelve that and ten something else. (not that those are useless, just that I don't want to spend my daily ritual praying to saints for intervention with angry God or other paradigms I don't believe in.)

For example, maybe I'd do some meditation. And it's been shown that saying positive things about yourself out loud has a positive mental effect, so why not also do a few repetitions of a few key sentences? Furthermore, the dual n-back task helps your mind as well, increases your working memory, etc. Why not include that as part of the daily practice? It's all part of the same package: improving your mind, improving your life.

(for those who say that I'm confusing "mind" and "soul", I offer willpower as an example. Here is a thing that can be improved by mental practice, that most of us would consider in the domain of "soul". Maybe mind and soul are not so different. But this is a debate for another day.)

Anyway, what am I forgetting? Any suggestions to help me evolve my basic practice? I'm sort of brainstorming right now, but who knows, maybe I'll make up my own little daily religious/mental thing. What do you do daily that improves your life?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Too caught up in goals?

I'd really like to have a real spiritual experience. You know, like Zen dudes talk about: all of a sudden you get it, you're sitting on a rock staring at a tree and you become one with the universe or whatever. I've read accounts of such things. That would really let me know I'm on the right track, and that this enlightenment/spiritual-development thing is really worth pursuing. (I know, blessed are those who have believed but not seen, doubting Thomas, etc, but bear with me.)

I'd also like to be a cool uncle. Like that uncle who is crazy and goes on fantastic adventures and has tons of weird stories. The kind of guy who just went and did his own thing, bucked the system, etc. Like Tom Robbins, if Tom Robbins were your uncle.

Is this bad? On one hand, having goals is good. On the other hand, probably every Zen (or other religion) master ever would hit me with a stick; you don't do religion so you can get high. And you don't travel so that people will think you're cool. On the first hand again, most of my other goals are negative (don't want to be a boringman, cubicleman, suburbanman, etc) and I feel like a positive goal is more better than a negative goal. Back to the second hand again: yeah but they're bad goals. Plus, what about no-attachments? I am somewhat attached to these goals: if you said I could never achieve either, I would be pretty sad.

Maybe that's it: keep the goals, lose the attachment. Easier said than done! But it's a start.

Other things: I watched Rushmore last night and enjoyed the heck out of it, and I'm developing quite a taste for biscotti.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Overload overload overload.

I got to reading this book by this guy. A Brief History of Everything, by Ken Wilber. Please forgive him for the big picture of his noggin on the cover.

It's very good! There are so many cool ideas running through it, we'd be here for days. Among them (simplified blah blah):
- everything is a holon; that is, a whole and a part of some other whole
- holons are arranged in a hierarchy: atoms make molecules, molecules make cells, cells make humans, etc
- things that are higher up in the hierarchy are more "conscious"- frogs more than worms, worms more than dirt, humans more than apes, etc
- there are 4 quadrants of ... the universe... interior/exterior and single/collective. So say there's a newborn baby who has a brain that cannot tell the difference between what is itself and what is not itself. Exterior/singularly, we can talk about what bits of brain and neurons it has. But you could study all the neurons all day and not understand what it means to that baby. Interior/singularly, the baby has certain emotions along with that. (like examining a computer program's code, and what it's doing to the memory and disk etc, vs talking about what the program is actually doing in a meaningful sense) Similarly, there are collective sides to both things: what happens when a bunch of babies have a bunch of brains like this, and what does that mean?
- you can call these quadrants "I", "We", "It", and "Its". (or you can lump it and its together and just call them together "it". It's external, objective reality.)
- society has, since the Enlightenment/Age of Reason just forgotten about "I" and "we" and focused only on "it". The brain and neurons is all there is; don't worry about what that means to the person who's experiencing it. This is a problem.
- personal mental and spiritual development are the same, along a spectrum. You go through these stages as a kid: distinguishing between you and not-you, becoming able to imagine what it's like to be other people, focusing on first only yourself, then on other people in your group, then on all people worldwide, and then if you keep climbing this ladder you'll hit a few states that we today would call "spiritual"... where you focus on all of nature, and eventually on the non-duality of everything.

These are all cool, especially the last! But it's a lot to take in. Two questions:
1. How do I remember it, how do I make sure it doesn't just linger in my mind for a week or a year and then disappear, leaving me back where I've started? This is frustrating; it seems like, to get better at these things, I'd have to study them as if a class at school. But I have a full-time job and thus not much energy to "take a class" too.
2. Should I even remember it? Is he right? Is this book just a bunch of nonsense? This is even more frustrating. Of course, I google it and the first things that come up are a few critiques. It's like figuring out the truth in law or politics or computer science or anything else! Gah!

I answer myself: don't worry about it, take a step back, chill out. But that seems to be my response to everything these days, which leads to nothing ever changing. And maybe I'll spontaneously Get Enlightened someday at this rate, but I don't think so.

Boy, it'd be nice if, y'know, understanding the universe, true happiness, enlightenment were easy, eh?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

So much internet!

When you have a bunch of blogs you're subscribed to and you go away for a few days, stuff piles up! And then, because I am crazy, I feel like I have to read through it all, even though I'd really like to be reading books instead but the internet sucks my brains out. So if I'm going to get all scatterbrained, the least I can do is pick out the best of the stuff and put it up here for you to read too. The later ones are better:

I could buy this argument about soy being bad for you (medium quickness)

Every Day the Same Dream (a little less quick but still pretty quick)

Penultimately, People in Order (three minutes but worth it. I like #40.)

And if you'd like a shout out for a blog to read, I am liking Study Hacks more and more.