Like a lot of people, sometimes my mind tends to make problems harder than they really are. I think we do this for problems that we’re somewhat afraid to tackle. Telling ourselves that they are really hard gives us an excuse for not solving them. Excuses are just like junk food, they make you feel better for a short while, you know you shouldn’t have them in your life and they end up hurting you over the long haul.

Lately I’ve been pretty good at keeping the junk food out of my diet but honestly I’ve allowed my brain to consume a bit too much of it. Feeding your head all those excuses only fills it with fatty thoughts which makes it harder and harder to truly solve the original problem. I was feeling kind of bummed about this situation I’ve put myself into earlier tonight, combine that with a head full of excuses and you’ve got a situation that should be avoided.

Over the years, I’ve found that distraction can be key in these situations. I distract myself long enough to stop feeling bummed, then I can work on clearing out the excuses effectively. So tonight I decided to catch up on some reading, Wired Science Blog to be exact.

I was reading through yesterdays stories when I got to this one about Randy Pausch. The blog pointed to a lecture that he gave about accomplishing your childhood dreams which seemed so wonderfully inspiring that I felt the need to watch it. The video was 85 minutes long and right from the start I knew it would be an enjoyable 85 minutes.

Randy talked about the dreams that he had as a child and then explained how he managed to accomplish them. In the course of this, I discovered that he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and that he’d spent a large portion of his career working in virtual reality. Being someone that worked in the virtual reality lab at Iowa State University for two years, my interest was growing.

In high school I was fortunate enough to visit the Iowa State campus and tour their virtual reality lab. The work they were doing was so spectacular that I couldn’t get my mind off of it. When it came time to decide what college to go to, my parents and I visited ISU and I made sure to stop by the virtual reality lab and see if I could talk to someone there. One of the students was kind enough to not blow me off and actually described a bit of the technology they were using. I made sure to stash this info safely in my head.

My choice to attend Iowa State was strongly motivated by my dream to work in this lab. One of the required skills was being familiar with SGI computers and during the summer of my freshman year I managed to purchase one for $225. This computer was a wonderful SGI Indigo with a R3000 CPU at 33MHz. It was the first computer that I’d ever purchased and honestly I knew nothing about how to use it. But damn, I was motivated to figure it out. By the end of my sophomore year I had become quite proficient with this machine and decided that I’d walk down to the VR lab and see if I could start to volunteer my time.

I talked to a professor there named Judy Vance and as it turns out, she had money to actually pay me for my time. I can only remember one other time in my life when I’ve felt as excited as I did at that moment, my dream had been realized.

I loved the work that they had me doing and I learned such a wide variety of skills. Then Judy asked if I could help out the Society of Women Engineers on a project. They were working with Carnegie Mellon University to setup these very inexpensive VR systems with the goal of getting kids involved in programming. My job was to help them with some hardware interfaces, something that I’d worked on for a previous project. The only difference was that this time it needed to be interfaced to this virtual reality software called Alice.

This project was kind of exciting for me, it isn’t often that geeks get to literally work with a room full of women and have some loose ties to CMU. However, to be honest, at this point my attention was shifting away from virtual reality and over to search engines and I couldn’t get myself dedicated to the project.

Now here’s the amazing part. Alice was developed at CMU… by Randy Pausch! The man that I’ve been watching give this fantastic lecture is the same guy that we were working with to setup this virtual reality program for kids and I didn’t even know it. In all likelihood, my boss Judy Vance knew Randy Pausch. I continued watching the lecture with more enthusiasm now than ever.

Overall Randy shared some truly fantastic advice. Advice like, “when there’s an elephant in the room, introduce him”, “when you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore that means they gave up”, “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted”, “get a feedback loop and listen to it”, etc. It’s well worth the time to watch and it’s exactly what I needed to really motivate me to ditch the excuses that I’ve been struggling with for a while now.

Not only was it inspiring because Randy Pausch is a smart guy with good advice, it’s also inspiring because he gave this lecture after finding out that he had 4-6 months left to live due to pancreatic cancer. To see someone in this situation with such a good sense of humor (complete with quasi Jim Carry facial expressions) is a very awesome thing. I’d think that it would be so easy to fill those last 6 months with excuses but instead he did what he needed to do.

Randy Pausch died yesterday, July 25th 2008, at the age of 47.


Vindicated Vinyl

July 22, 2008

A while ago my friend and fellow music lover Liz asked me why I liked vinyl so much. At the time I gave her the same answer that I give almost everyone, it simply has a good feeling to it. But that’s kind of a bullshit answer to the question, what does “good feeling” even mean?

My intention with that answer has never been to give people the run around or to pretend that I’m some kind of pompous connoisseur. I’ve given that answer because I’ve never really sat down and thought about the mysterious draw that it has on me. Because I don’t really enjoy giving Liz bullshit answers, I sat down for a few minutes after she left and tried to figure out exactly what it is about vinyl that I love so much.

First off, vinyl appeals to the geek in me because it’s an engineering marvel. When you think about the very small electrical signals that are generated by the needle moving a coil between some magnets and how those signals are so carefully amplified by the phono stage before hitting the preamplifier then going down the line to the power amplifier and finally reproducing the exact same movements on a much larger scale in your speakers. It’s a purely mechanical and analog system and it’s alone in this sense. The technology has been around since the first recordings and still manages to amaze me that it actually works.

Not only does it work, it actually works quite well. People talk about how vinyl has a warm sound to it, and in an effort to describe things succinctly, I guess that’s a fair description. But to my ear, that warm sound is actually the sound of imperfection. Some might get confused at this point and wonder how imperfection in an audio system could be considered a good thing.

One of my all time favorite bloggers was Kathy Sierra. Her blog was called “Creating Passionate Users” and it clued me into a number of things regarding human nature. One of those things was the fact that we are somewhat drawn to a small amount of randomness. If that isn’t obvious to you, think about it for a short while. What’s more interesting, a person that is perfect or a person with some flaws? A perfect person may sound nice on the surface but I’m sure we would all find that person boring after a short while. I believe that this draw to the imperfect is partly what makes vinyl enjoyable.

Another thing that I love about vinyl is that it really forces you to listen to the music. It takes so much effort to skip a track on a record that you end up not bothering. Maybe we should give kids that can’t concentrate a pile of records and a turntable instead of prescribing them ritalin.

Really good albums tend to have a story to tell, each track being a chapter and in a way I feel that I owe it to these artists to listen to what they have to say in the order they intended… at least once. To be honest, I have found myself quite annoyed that I couldn’t easily go back and listen to the same song again once it ends. But in time I realized that this was actually a fantastic thing. How many times have you found yourself listening to the same song on an album over and over again because it’s so good and leaving the rest of the album untouched? I’ve found myself in this trap many times and one sure fire way to cure it is to make it a royal pain to put things on repeat.

While my collection of vinyl records is far from huge, I do take every opportunity that I get to purchase vinyl at concerts. On the plus side, vinyl is frequently more profitable for the artist and I’m all about supporting them. Another little known fact is that today you frequently get a digital copy (without any DRM) when you purchase a record. This makes it so easy to have your cake and eat it too.

So keep an open mind. If you’re fortunate enough to find a good turntable and are able to hook it up to your system, you might want to consider it. Hopefully you’ll experience the same combination of relaxation, excitement and enjoyment that I do while fully exploring what the artist is sharing.

Foo Camp 2008

July 22, 2008

This was the 5th year that I’ve attended Foo Camp and with each year I feel more and more honored to be invited. If you’ve never heard of Foo Camp and you’re too damn lazy to follow the above link, I’ll give you a brief overview.

Tim O’Reilly is the founder of O’Reilly Media and tends to be very insightful when it comes to technology (he’s also one hell of a nice guy). Every year he holds this (un)conference at the O’Reilly campus in Sebastopol and invites interesting people to attend. The conference starts on a Friday and goes through Sunday and is three of the most enlightening days of my year. There isn’t much for lodging in Sebastopol so attendees are invited to camp on the lawn.

One of the greatest things about Foo Camp is that you always feel like the dumbest person there (or at least I do). For years now I’ve wondered how NASA communicates with the vehicles on Mars. The time delay to communicate that far away is so massive that I couldn’t see traditional communications working. I could have done some research online or I could have just attended Foo Camp because I actually meet a person that worked on the communications systems for the Mars projects! Talk about making my day.

Foo Camp is a very special place because no matter where you turn, you are talking to someone that has done something notable. I had some great conversations over dinner with Andy and Dave from Pragmatic Programmers, Jim Zemlin from The Linux Foundation and scores of others as well. Late at night Scott Berkun and I spent hours sharing stories with our mutual friend Bonnie around the fire pit.

As for the talks at the conference, they are always spectacular. I went to a fantastic talk about renewable energy sources and exactly how big of a task we have ahead of us (I might devote an entire post to this topic). Another fantastic session was by Dan Kaminsky where he talked about the huge DNS security hole that has recently been making waves in the tech circles. But in general I find that my most valuable time is spent with one on one or impromptu group conversations.

So as usual, I walked away 100% exhausted. Ze Frank made me laugh just like he always does, catching up with former O’Reilly coworkers is always fantastic and I’m more motivated than ever to continue doing things worthy of Tim’s appreciation with the hopes of getting another invite next year :).

To celebrate Independence Day this year, my friend (and coworker) Evan and I decided that we should spend the day cycling. I live in Cupertino California which gives me the great fortune of having access to some of the best cycling in the country. Right outside my door is a world of fantastic climbs for both road and mountain bikers, it’s quite amazing and unique for an urban area.

Evan is a very experienced and talented cyclist so naturally he brings out the competitive side in me. He’s also in a bit better shape than I am, so when he suggested that we ride from Cupertino to Santa Cruz and back I couldn’t say no and I had a hard time telling him that I was a little worried about being able to do such a ride. I’ve ridden centuries before, but I’ve never done a ride that is this long with so much climbing.

So the plan was to start at my place early in the morning (8am ish). It’s roughly a 20 min ride from my place to the bottom of Redwood Gulch, the first major climb for the day. Redwood Gulch is really a fantastic road, very light traffic, gorgeous scenery, fairly short (0.75 miles) and very steep (at least 25% grade in places).

At the top of Redwood Gulch you meet up with Highway 9. Hwy 9 has a fair amount of traffic but is thankfully quite wide and a popular ride for cyclists so cars are fairly aware of your presence. The grade is more relaxed at 8% but still a lot of work. At 2500′ you reach Skyline (Highway 35) and the top of the climb. It’s a fun and easy descent on the western side of Skyline all the way to Santa Cruz so Evan and I made pretty fantastic time. We even got to see the tail end of a parade along the way.

Evan has a fantastic obsession with food so once we got to Santa Cruz we stopped for a quick lunch. After a bit of mexican food and some time trying to convince Evan that the hostess was totally into me and my spandex, we got back on the road.

The climb back up Hwy 9 is pretty easy. There is number of towns along the way so traffic can be kind of heavy, but the sights help to make up for that. When we got to Boulder Creek we decided to take the long way home via Big Basin State Park. Taking this route added a dozen miles to our trip and about 800′ of extra climbing but it’s such a beautiful place that we thought it would be well worth the effort.

Right outside of the park I had my first feelings of fatigue and I knew what the climb was like getting out. We took a short break, got some cold water and chatted with one of the park rangers. This guy actually suggested that we find a motorcyclist to pull us up the climb!

I actually made it out of Big Basin without any trouble at all, but the final section climbing back up to Skyline was pretty brutal on me. I made it but not without a fair amount of cramping.

I thought we were home free, but our descent down Redwood Gulch was a bit problematic. That road is so steep that Evan’s breaks were fading and the heat buildup actually caused his wheel to fail. I ended up riding back to my place and grabbing the car to go pick Evan up.

All in all the ride was right around 90 miles with 7300′ of climbing and it took us around 5 hours 30 min to complete it. That’s not too bad given that the climb up the eastern side of the mountain would be at least a category 1 climb if not a beyond category climb in the Tour.

My Little Puff

July 21, 2008

For the longest time I’ve been meaning to start my own blog. My motivations for wanting to start have varied but the clincher was simply an increasing desire to share. Those that know me personally have probably realized by now that sharing is pretty ingrained in my DNA. Whether it’s a thought, a feeling, a story or a hand, if I can share it I probably will, sometimes to the point of annoyance.

Being an astronomy fan, I kind of see this as my own personal Big Bang. An event that spews stuff out into the universe. Some people might find that stuff interesting, others might find it confusing and even more are bound to interpret things incorrectly. While I like to think that I’m an interesting person, comparing my murmurings to the Big Bang is ridiculous, so I’ll remain humble and call this my little puff.

I tend to find almost everything interesting so it’s hard to tell exactly what topics will dominate this blog. But it’s probably a safe bet that I’ll talk a bit about geek stuff, cycling, hiking, skiing, photography, music and the endless stream of stories that dating and relationships provide.

So welcome to my little puff, I hope I can supply you with ample amounts of the basic elements needed to start some conversations.