I was just walking back to my car in the parking lot when I was approached by a group of four 10 year old boys. I heard one of them say, "pound it before you get in." Looking up, I came to realize he was talking to me.
The boy, sporting a backwards baseball cap and droopy jeans, held out his fist and repeated, "pound it before you get in." I quickly looked around to see if I was being setup for a mugging but no one else was close to me.
"It is going to explode?" I asked.
"Um, maybe, I don't know," he responded.
"Well," I continued, "I'm only in if it explodes."
He nodes his head and the exploding fist bump resulted in he and his friends laughing hysterically and walking away.
As I got into my car, I couldn't help but wonder: did I just provide to those kids that I was cooler than they thought? Or did I prove that I'm less cool than they thought?
(Excerpted from an IM conversation, pardon the language.)
I didn't start out wanting to sell books and give talks.
I just wanted to make cool shit.
Then other people said, "hey, I wanna learn how to make cool shit, too!"
Well, I don't have time to show everyone how to make cool shit, so I'll just write it down or talk about it and then everyone can go off and make their own cool shit.
Just a quick note to welcome everyone to my personal blog. For a very long time, I've been writing at NCZOnline, and struggled to figure out what readers of that blog want to read. It started out as my personal blog, complete with rants and random musings, and then evolved into a blog focused on web technology. As it turns out, people really enjoyed the tech focus, and so I stopped writing non-technical pieces to focus on what my readers were requesting. That left me with a bit of a problem.
I'm not a technical writer, I'm a writer who has published some technical books. Writing isn't just what I do to make a few bucks on the side (and it is, a very few bucks), it's a large part of who I am. I have ideas in my head and things I want to say, and NCZOnline just isn't the place to say it.
After pondering this for a while, I finally decided that I had enough non-technical content that I could rationalize setting up an entirely separate blog for that purpose. There are a fair amount of people that I've heard from who really enjoyed my non-technical posts, not the least of which being my Dad (who now is completely befuddled by the tech slant of NCZOnline). Over the next couple weeks, I'll be transferring all of my non-technical content from NCZOnline over to this blog. That may mess up some permalinks, but the non-technical posts tend not to be as linked-to as the technical ones.
And so, welcome to my new personal blog. I can virtually guarantee that there won't be anything technical posted here. It's just me, Nicholas, saying what's on my mind, for better or worse.
Those who follow me on Twitter or otherwise electronically know me may have been surprised/frightened by some messages relating to my having surgery. Last Tuesday, I went in for some surgery to hopefully allow me to breathe through my nose in a more useful way. I recently learned that I had a deviated septum that rendered my left nostril just about useless. Of course, I never noticed this my entire life...it never occurred to me that I wasn't using that nostril.
Doctors believe that this obstruction to my breathing, both while awake and especially while asleep, could be the root of some health problems I've been struggling with. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not a fan of doctors and certainly have no love for hospitals, so when I agree to have surgery, it means that I have a strong belief that it's important to my health and well-being to do so.
I had the surgery, consisting of a septoplasty and turbinectomy, last Tuesday, January 27th at the inexplicably awesome Stanford University Hospital. The surgery went completely as expected with no complications and was performed by the awesome Dr. Li. There were a couple of hiccups, one before and one after: I had an allergic reaction to the hospital gown so they had to get me a different one, and I had a slight arrhythmia for a few hours after surgery.
I'm on the road to recovery now. My mom was nice enough to fly out and take care of me for the week because, as she says, "that's [her] job until you have a wife." And I was glad to have her. The recovery was a bit tougher than I thought it would be. It would have been tough for me to manage everything by myself (though worth noting, super friends Shelby and Courtland offered to step up if mom wasn't able to come up). The pain was a bit more widespread and longer-lasting than I thought it would be, so the hospital and Dr. Li adjusted my pain medication a couple of times.
So how are things now? Well, my face is still pretty swollen, though it's most noticeable on my nose and upper-lip. The swelling has gone down a great deal since Tuesday, when my entire face was swollen, though amazingly I didn't get a black eye. Right now I probably look like I was beaten up, left on the street for a week, and then picked up and cleaned up a bit (but not much). If you want to know what it feels like, picture the worst, stuffiest cold you've ever had, take that, and then imagine someone punching you square in the nose as hard as they can. That's about what it feels like.
The most maddening part of the healing process is that I'm not allowed to blow my nose. That means I just need to let my nose drip whatever it's dripping, and that's driving me insane because it's been dripping since Tuesday (though thankfully has slowed down). I'm still a bit out of it thanks to the pain meds and mostly feel too tired to do much. Today was the first day I felt well enough to sit in front of the computer and type.
You may have been wondering how my last blog post got published on the same day as my surgery. WordPress has a great feature that allows you to delay the publishing of a post until a specific date and time, and since I wanted to keep to my one-tech-article-a-week resolution, I wrote it the previous weekend and just set it to publish on that day. Pretty cool, huh?
So, I just wanted to let everyone know that I'm fine and on the way to getting better. I'm sure it'll be at least another week before I feel close to normal, and probably be another 2-3 weeks before I have my previous energy levels back. I'm going to try to do some work on Monday, but might have to work from home if my head is still foggy. I'm also relatively sure that there will be at least two sentences in this post with grammatical errors, so please forgive that asdf;jklasdfcsd. Kidding. Kind of.
I don't know how everyone else feels about 2008, but in my opinion, it really sucked and I really couldn't wait for it to be over and done with. Obviously, the United States fell on some ridiculously woeful times, with the collapse of the housing market followed by a monumental dissolution of the financial system as we knew it. The effect hit me at work, where Yahoo! had two rounds of layoffs during the calendar year, and also personally as I tried to deal with my condo in Massachusetts. Needless to say, 2008 was a stinker of a year and now it's time to look forward.
I've never really been someone to set new year's resolutions, but I do have some plans for 2009. This will be the first year in the past five that I'm not going to be working on a whole book. Instead of spending weekends indoors, furiously pounding away on the keyboard to meet my next deadline, I'm going to go do some fun things. I've yet to explore my new area in Mountain View, so I'm very much looking forward to doing that. I may even take a few classes here and there.
I also want to recreate this web site. I posted about the redesign contest a little while ago (still time to enter, by the way!), but I also wants to reorganize the site and make it more of a place that represents me. I've also decided that I will post a new technical article every Tuesday throughout the year. My posts have always been kind of randomly timed, but this year I'm going to make a concerted effort to have a predictable schedule that people can count on. Of course, there will still be the randomness that you've come to know me for, but with a string of sanity on Tuesdays.
One big project I have for myself is to try to create more avenues of passive income. Book royalties are a great start, but I want to explore other avenues as well. I have a few ideas rumbling around in my head that I need to think through a bit more. I'm a huge believer in passive income as an important step in being financially independent, so I want to devote some serious time in this area.
I'm sure I'll come up with other goals throughout the year, but I figured I'd post these now in the hopes that I wouldn't forget about them later. Happy new year, everyone!
I arrived early to my appointment that morning and walked the hallway down to the office suite. I passed right by the bathroom that I was anxious to use after my half-hour drive. Each office suite gets a key to the bathroom, and retrieving it was my sole intention when I walked into my destination. Yet it wasn't there. I looked around and couldn't find it anyways. Damn.
When Chris finally arrived, I asked him where the bathroom key was. He said that it fell off the keychain and he hasn't had one for a while.
"But," he said holding up his keychain, "do you have a key that looks like this?"
The key he pointed to looked like an ordinary house key. I looked at the key, then to his face, trying to figure out what he meant.
"Yes..." I responded.
"That's all you need," he said, "it should work for the bathroom."
I pulled out my keychain and walked back down the hallway to the bathroom. I took my house key and inserted it into the door's lock. The doorknob felt looser and, as I turned it, the door easily opened. I stood there in amazement for a moment. I'd been going there for two years, and how many times had I waited for someone to return with the bathroom key? Each and every time, I had the key that would open the door with me and didn't even realize it. The experience made me stop and think, I wonder what other keys I'm carrying...
A couple of years ago, my buddy Aaron introduced me to poker, specifically Texas Hold 'em. Being a good friend, he did it in the most appropriate way possible: by taking all of my money repeatedly. I remember sitting and marveling at his ability to win hand after hand, without breaking a sweat. Every time I thought I had him, he had something better. It drove me nuts. How could he possibly know what I had each time? The problem, of course, was that I had no real idea how the game was played. I made several mistakes that beginning poker players make. Since then, I've learned a lot, and found that there's a bunch of life lessons hidden within the game of poker.
It's not all about chance. The first mistake I made as a beginner was that I assumed poker was all about chance. When playing cards, it's easy to group it into the category of "gambling" along with playing the lottery. There is, of course, the element of chance to poker. But even more important is the strategy you employ. You cannot control the hand you are dealt (legally) but you can control how you use the hand you're dealt. Good life lesson there. Good players can win with almost any two cards; bad players can barely win with good ones.
It's not all about me. My second mistake was playing the game only from my point of view. I was playing my cards and wasn't paying attention to the other players. You need to understand what you have, yes, but you also need to try and figure out what everyone else has. Are they actually playing from a position of power or bluffing? Do they have any idea what they're doing? Will they fold if you bet hard? In these respects, poker is all about observing your opponents to determine their patterns, their strengths, and their weaknesses. This is a really important lesson that applies in all facets of life. As The Art of War says:
So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will fight without danger in battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.
Having the best hand and bluffing aren't the only options. I believe this is the most common misconception about poker and life. A lot of people believe that you either have the best hand that round or you're bluffing. In reality, you don't always know that you have the best hand. You may have an idea about the relative strength of weakness of your hand in the deck, but a winning hand one round can be a losing hand the next. Often times you're playing to see if your hand can improve, and if the cost is worth the risk of waiting for that improvement. So really, you need to understand if your opponent has a better hand than (but maybe not necessarily the best), the same as you, worse than you, or is bluffing. Your opponent isn't black or white, so you must be more perceptive
You can play correctly and still lose. Seriously. You can do absolutely everything by the book, call when you're supposed to, raise when you're supposed to, and still end up losing. Just like life. You play the cards you're dealt but you have no control over the other cards that will come. That doesn't mean you stop doing things the right way; that means you accept failure as a possibility but still believe in your strategy. The tournament that I believe I played the best in actually saw me leave much earlier than I wanted. However, I was proud of myself because it was the first time I had put together a really effective strategy and stuck to it. It just so happened that it wasn't in the cards that night (pun intended).
Your opponents don't know your cards. Amateurs often think that professionals know what they have. You can put someone "on tilt" by saying things like, "so you have pocket 6's, huh?" The amateur shows a reaction which then tells the professional whether that's a true statement or not. You always need to keep in mind that no one knows your cards (in a legal game), so you can play them any way you want. Even if people think they know your cards, it's still just a hunch and you can change their mind by changing your strategy. You can bet aggressively with weaker hands and lull others into betting hard when you have stronger ones. You can start out betting slow and then bet fast, or vice versa. The point is, so long as no one knows your cards, you are in control and can play them any way you want.
Patience pays off. You can play for a long time and get only crappy cards dealt to you. Beginners start getting anxious and impatient, so they'll start playing with cards when they have no chance of winning. People just "want to play the game," and that's dangerous. Just as good hitters in baseball wait for pitchers to throw strikes before swinging, you need to be patient and don't give in to foolishness. Acting too quickly is often more detrimental than not acting at all. It's not a sign of weakness to fold several hands in a row; it's a sign of having a good strategy and sticking to it.
My team at Yahoo! has a healthy, if not obsessive, interest in torturing each other. I've talked about this before in regards to our propensity for taking and hiding items when no one is looking. But we don't stop at that. Or perhaps I should say, I don't stop at that. This is the story of how my co-worker and cube mate, Steve, got completely owned.
It all began with the YUI birthday party earlier this year. One of the attendees was former Yahoo Dustin Diaz, who took what I considered to be a really cool pic of Steve. I found the pic on Flickr and showed it to Steve, who promptly responded with disgust, saying something along the lines of, "that's a terrible picture of me." He then left work to go home. Big mistake.
As soon as he left, I went to work. My goal was to get the picture in as many places as possible by the following morning. So I put it on the men's room door. On the vending machine. In the cafeteria. On his monitors. Then I made really small versions and put them in the "how I feel today" magnet and scattered some on his chair. I put them up all over campus in various buildings; some spots were obvious and others were not. I figured the obvious ones he'd find right away and possibly tear down, whereas the non-obvious ones he'd find somewhere down the road, maybe in months, and he'd realize the total extent of the prank. Psychological warfare is the best kind.
The next day, I also arranged for an hourly reminder of the photo. I got a bunch of people to agree to change their IM picture to that photo and send him an instant message at a designated time. Some were current Yahoos, some were former Yahoos, and the result was hilarious.
Perhaps the best part of this whole deal was when random people would stop Steve and ask him why his photo was up everywhere. Or when people would ask him why he looks familiar. Even now, months after most of the photos were taken down, there are some in obscure places still waiting to be discovered.
I setup a set on my Flickr account to document the occassion: Steve gets owned. Steve has sworn revenge, but so far, they've just been empty threats.
Ever since I was little, I've loved magic. I used to watch the David Copperfield specials obsessively and was always fascinated by the tricks. I took a few magic classes when I was younger and learned some basic tricks. Of course, the pursuit of magic excellence is a lifelong endeavor and not really something you can do in your spare time. So as I got older and other things became more important to me, the few magic lessons I had learned were left behind. But my fascination didn't end.
Being a software engineer really means being a problem solver. My curiosity about magic, and my little bit of magic background, led me to thinking about a generic way to figure out how a trick was done. After some thinking, I figured out that magic tricks work because of a series of assumptions that we, the spectators, make. The assumptions are:
- This isn't possible. Your initial reaction to a trick is, "no way." It seems to defy everything you know about the universe. Things appear and disappear seemingly at will and with no rhyme or reason. It just can't be possible...right?
- You saw everything. Magicians are masters of diverting your attention. David Blaine must say, "look," about 20 times a minute. And so you look at what you think is the important thing.
- The magician is working alone. This is such a basic assumption that you don't ever question it. The magician is the one waving his hands around, and you're fixating on him (or her). It's who the camera focuses on and who your eyes go to. But is the magician really the only one involved?
- The props are legitimate. A lot of tricks involve props, either one the magician provides or one that is offered by someone in the audience. Most of the time, you take the props at face value, especially when the magician lets you inspect it.
- You had a choice. The magician asks you to choose something: a card from a deck, a number within a range, a color. Somehow, he/she is able to know exactly what you picked! That should be impossible because mind reading isn't possible!
When you add together all of these assumptions, you have someone who can't possibly figure out how the trick is done. There is no way to disect a trick so long as you're holding onto any one of these assumption. The way to debunk a trick is to start with each assumption and then assume the opposite.
The very first thing to do is assume that what you saw is, in fact, possible. The biggest block is continuing to assume that what you saw is impossible. Impossibility never leads to solution; possibility does. So accept that the end result of the trick is completely possible and not only that, there's a logical explanation for it.
Next, you need to assume that you didn't see everything the first time around. Your attention was distracted and directed to something or someone. Wherever the magician is instructing everyone to look is the exact place where you should not be looking. Typically, the real action is taking place away from everyone's focus; it has to, the trick wouldn't work if everyone was looking away from the subject. And then there's the things that happen right in front of your eyes that you don't realize. I've seen some incredible illusions using nothing other than slight of hand. Anytime an object leaves your sight, even for a moment, you can almost be assured that it was swapped out and is on its way to its final destination.
A key part of magic is the use of a secondary player. This goes back to the "lovely assistant" of old-school stage shows. Of course, the lovely assistant was primarily used as a distraction and prop...everyone looks at beautiful women. Nowadays, the secondary player isn't so obvious. They blend in with the surroundings, they may be the camera man, a guy in the crowd, a woman at a restaurant; it doesn't cost much to hire a small-time actor for a half hour. If your first thought is that the trick could only be possible if there was someone else involved then someone else probably was. No one can be in two places at once, not even magicians.
The props in a trick are always suspect. Just because you provided the magician with the prop doesn't mean that it actually gets used for the core of the trick. A quarter you pulled out of your pocket can't be melted and brought back to form within the span of five minutes but a trick quarter can be. At some point, the magician will swap out your quarter for the trick quarter and later on returned. Never assume that props are what they seem; they usually aren't.
Last, a lot of tricks that seem to involve choice actually leave you no choice at all. Techniques such as card forcing, where the card you pick is prearranged and subtley placed in your possession, makes you think that the choice is random when nothing could be further from the truth. The magician knew exactly what card you'd pick, exactly what you were going to say or write. Think about it: if you knew what someone's answer to a question would be, it would be easy to create a trick around that, right? Magicians use all of kinds of clues, both conscious and subconscious, to force you to make a certain choice. If you want to see this in action, do a search for Derren Brown.
The bottom line is that anyone can figure out how magic tricks are done when you reverse all of the assumptions we typically make about the tricks we're seeing. Magicians work very hard and are incredibly brilliant in their approaches, but they are human just like the rest of us. They need to play by the same rules; they just know how to manipulate the rules to dramatic effect. First and foremost, magicians are performers putting on a show. Never forget that and you're already going down the road to figuring out the tricks.
When I was in graduate school, we all had to write an applied research paper (which was also called a thesis paper, though realistically, we had no thesis to speak of). The goal of any such assignment in school is to pick a topic that you can stand to live and breathe for about three months while writing an 80-page paper. Somewhere along the line I got interested in appearance discrimination.
I've always been aware that how you dress can change how people act around you. Since college, I'd actually try dressing in different styles and see how people would react. Dress up one day, dress down the next, hats, coats...I had a lot of fun. If anyone was paying attention, they'd probably see me chuckling as I noted people's reactions. Appearances certainly affect the way others perceive you.
In any event, I decided to investigation appearance discrimination in the workplace for my paper. I read a lot of books and research to put together the paper. I found a lot of really interesting information. For instance, more attractive people tend to sort themselves into jobs where their looks will help them get ahead. It's a very natural sorting phenomenon where everyone eventually ends up in a job where they provide the highest value. For attractive people, they typically provide the highest value by being customer-facing, so lawyers at private firms, salespeople, etc.
You can make yourself more attractive by dressing up a bit. As it turns out, this can have a serious effect on your career. Those who dress better during interviews are more likely to be hired over someone who hasn't dressed as nice, all other things being equal.
These are just some of the interesting things I uncovered in my research. If you'd like to read the entire paper, it's available for download in PDF format: The Eye of the Beholder: Appearance Discrimination in the Workplace.