The Power to Dream

Sometimes you underestimate the power of little things. Case in point, the power to dream. As people get more and more experience, imagination starts to take a back seat and you start thinking in terms of what might be possible.


It just struck me at a small gathering. We were planning an event and a group of us were talking about realistic approaches, what kind of strategies would work, what we need to do it. On paper, the obstacles are quite formidable. However, one person had the “vision” or the “dream” and somehow every time he said something there was so much conviction in his vision and hope in his eyes that nothing we could say would diminish it.


So we walked away with a little bit of that hope and started thinking of ways to do it anyway. It’s really amazing how we sometimes hold ourselves back for the stupidest reasons and draw conclusions when we get the greatest reality check for free: reality. Makes you wonder what the point of limiting yourself is when you can just deal with reality and keep adjusting your plans until reality eventually comes around.

2010

Like all bloggers, every new year brings on a fresh bout of “I shall blog more” syndrome where we trick ourselves into thinking that with the new year we will some how magically be transformed into diligent bloggers that are eager to share our witty insights and soaring intellect with the world at large. We bow and scrape, write out our apologies for neglecting our loyal readers awaiting the next exciting installment with bated breath.


It all starts magnificently. We rediscover the joys of blogging again and may even get back into a regular schedule of posting. Then the well runs dry. We stray to twitter or facebook and look on as other bloggers crank out content. The rich bloggers hire other fresh bloggers while the rest fade away and before you know it it’s another year, saying “maybe this time it’ll be different”.

Twilight

In any literature class they teach you the importance of establishing conflict. Conflict is what drives a plot and makes it interesting. The problem is that in the 21st century it’s hard to define conflict. Morality is a lot more loose and hard to define. Even in super-hero movies, the line between good and bad is often blurred. Who would watch the Dark Knight if the Joker and Batman worked things out by talking? You’d have to be very good with the dialogue.


That’s why these vampire romances sort of add a nice dimension of conflict. You’re madly in love with someone you really want to eat and literally suck dry. Although I had my doubts about jumping on the band wagon watching Twilight but after the opening scene of the daughter moving away to a new town complete with sad 1960s rock music, I knew it would be good, though not in a conventional way.


In a word, the movie wins massively with casting to prop up a cliched and vacuous plot. You have to suspend your belief significantly when you see the Cullens (a vampire family) introduced in the movie, pale white goth-looking teens who look like vampires from a mile away keeping to themselves in a small town and nowhere to be seen when there’s sunlight. Of course Bella, the new girl, takes no time in figuring out that Edward and his family are vampires (though the entire town is oblivious for years).


What drives the movie is Bella’s romance with Edward because both the actors do such a great job at portraying an uneasy teenage love affair that you’re willing to forget the flimsy plot and sappy vows of eternal love.


Having said that, a lot of these vampire romances just leaves your head scratching. This is somehting that Twilight has in common with Vampire Diaries. Just to name a few:


  • Your boyfriend is pale white and brooding with strange colored eyes
  • He has zero social skills and is only interested in you
  • Said boyfriend may sometimes be hovering over you at night watching you sleep
  • Shows up at your house or in front of you at the oddest of moments
  • Not to mention he would really like to eat you
  • Prone to mood swings and other inexplicable behavior because they need to do or avoid “vampire type stuff”
  • Just the general notion that these are men who are a couple hundred years old preying on teenage girls

Any artistic achievement of this genre probably began and ended with the original Dracula, but the themes introduced will always be universal and it seems to combine well with teenage angst.

Where Do Old Goals Go to Die?

Perhaps the most important thing you can do when you set a goal is to decide what happens after you achieve them or fail in your pursuit. This past three months has been a hectic one in many respects. One of the many things on my agenda was to lose weight. I’m not overweight by any means. In fact, by BMI (Body Mass Index) I need to gain weight but of course these fancy weight scales tell you how much body fat you have and I was something like 15%. Over the course of roughly three months I continued to modify and experiment with my diet. I started with portion control and settled on eating meat for breakfast to jump start my day and make sure my body didn’t think it was starving despite not having as much food as before.


This was all followed by regular and intense exercise. For the final leg of the program I was hitting the gym everyday for 9 days straight and met all my targets. Body fat on last measure is 10% and I look like Kate Moss in her hey day. Whether that’s good or bad is another story but it was intense.


Any serious undertaking is more or less a battle fought within. Get on that machine, you order yourself. Hell no, you want to die? Then there’s a soothing devil there to caress you once manage to trick yourself into self-punishment. Hey, you more than deserve that bag of chips, isn’t the whole purpose of exercise to not have to watch what you eat? Of course, the voice of reason knows that the most strenuous of cardiovascular exercise sessions can’t possibly amount to a bag of chips. Sad but true.


We can all give our best every now and then but the real challenge is to be consistent. The challenge of consistency is the need to micro-manage yourself, to be the drill sergeant from hell there to yell into your ear a tirade of sweet obscenities until you finally decide that getting the bastard of your back is infinitely more comforting than avoiding the task at hand.


The biggest danger of these arbitrary goals is achieving them. What do you do when you achieve a goal? Or even when you are forced to give up? The smart thing is to have another greater goal on the horizon, to keep setting milestones and revising your grand design on a constant basis to align with your progress. However, the more intense the effort the more harder it will be to reign in the “celebration” phase when you let everything go to hell in a hand basket. It’s especially true with physical fitness because the benefits fade away much quicker than they come.


I guess there’s a reason why obsessive-compulsive types with just the right amount of talent go on to achieve great things because they’re never satisfied even when they hit their limits, they persevere and keep pushing. I turned to a variety of people for inspiration but I’m definitely not them. Time to look for new goals and revisit my long-term strategy.

The Pursuit of Fitness

Been exercising more and more, losing motivation and the whole nine. Still managing to keep the weight at a so-so level but not feeling that extra bump to go the whole nine yards. Now I’m about to enter the last 3 weeks of my program far from my way too ambitious goals. I want to drop a couple more kilos and not feel any meet hanging over my waist when I sit straight. Some things I need to stop if I’m going to take this to the next level.


  • Alcohol all together
  • Binging occasionally
  • More exercise during weekdays
  • Watch what I eat

There’s an evident pathology in the way I pursue my fitness goals. I’m always on a roller coaster ride either going generally up or generally down. The main problem is that I’m pretty much content with my current stats, feel a lot better and in generally better shape than I’ve been all year. The thing with really getting in shape is that you can never be satisfied with yourself. You need to be constantly pushing yourself until you put on more muscle or lose more fat. What’s more you can’t reward yourself for your efforts with more food. It gives me a whole new level of respect for these muscular pretty boy models. They must have a whole lot of will power to maintain something like that.


I’m going to have to get drastic starting this week and might have to take some extreme measures. I know I can’t starve myself to shed weight (because I just lose muscle and binge later) but I can’t eat the typical fare either. We’ll have to see.

Replacing the Office Chair with an Exercise Ball

Last week I replaced my office chair with an exercise ball. I actually bought two, one for the home and one for the office. I was looking for more ways to do something about my sedentary lifestyle as a desk monkey. Sales people get to make phone calls and go out of the office (so long as they close the deal). Management can always schedule a meeting here and there or even go on a business trip wherever they want. Programmers get to fidget in their seat all they and stare at their monitor. For exercise you go to the local cafe to grab a coffee, unless you work for one of those famous IT companies filled with toys.


The stereotypical programmer is either heroine-chic thin or fat as a balloon but on average a bit on the flabby side at best. You wont find many hardcore programmers curling barbells as they knock out one algorithmic marvel after another. So basically, I came to the conclusion, the only variable I can safely change is the surface I sit on.


I was never able to sit still for so long as I can remember. If I stay in the same spot for more than 15 minutes I get restless and impatient to the point where I have to jump out of the seat. It’s almost a disease really. I’ve always wanted to be one of those cool IT people sitting on one of those bouncy balls. It made the office look more fun and innovative. Of course, that image of exercise balls being cool probably died with the first IT bubble but I guess it’s never to late to rekindle fond memories.


I ordered a set of exercise balls off of Amazon for around $20 total. As I pushed my office chair to the side and started inflating the ball, I got cold, knowing looks from co-workers (“yeah, those used to be cool at my last office, didn’t do a damn thing for you after a while”), kicks (to the ball), and people wanting to try it. All the typical reactions I read about in doing some background research.


The first day was hell. I didn’t inflate the ball enough so it was a bit low for my desk. The thing about sitting on these exercise balls is that they are essentially fluid, unstable surfaces to sit on. You need to constantly shift your weight around to maintain your balance. As a result, paradoxically it may seem, you end up having to keep your back straighter than you usually do because it offers you the most balance and least effort on such surfaces.


My posture has always been bad even before becoming a programmer. I never was into sports to begin with and really didn’t care about posture. Naturally, my posture kept getting worse. On top of that I’m near-sighted so when I concentrate on something I tend to lean into the screen more than most people, making things even worse.


The first day of sitting on an exercise ball was the roughest. The second I started sitting on the ball my back suddenly went straight as an arrow. It was strange because it happened so naturally as I wiggled to gain stability when I first sat on the ball. After a short while my upper back was in excruciating pain from maintaining a straight line from my head down to my ball. While I wanted to relax my posture a bit, doing so would ruin my balance so there I was frozen in pain. Each day got better and from the second day I didn’t have any upper back pain. However, near the end of every workday my lower back would get really worked hard and tense from keeping my back straight. Being restless to start with now I was jumping out my seat all the time to relieve the muscle ache or rolling my hips on the ball to stretch out the small of my back.


After only spending a week on the ball my posture improved quite dramatically. I noticed the difference after only a day when I was looking at party pictures the day after I used the ball for a full day. I was just standing as I normally would without really trying to keep my back straight, yet it looked more straight than usual. It does seem to help you burn more calories too. The problem is I’ve been eating a lot more as well. Another side benefit is it keeps me from doing overtime since I can’t just slouch in my cheap, pretender of an ergonomic chair all day. My back muscles are in too much pain to stay any longer than eight hours.


It’s still too early to see how this whole thing will work out but it seems to have all kinds of benefits. Aside from getting extra exercise and better posture for free I can do all kinds of stretches whilst remaining seated just by rolling the ball around and stretching out my mid-section. When I do get to sit on a regular chair it feels like heaven too. However, sitting on an exercise ball helps you maintain more concentration though since it heightens your self-awareness. Not sure how long this phase of mine will last. I guess we’ll see.

Remembering the Artist Known As Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson’s death was definitely an unexpected shocker. Even though his life has long degraded into a media circus of scandal and freakish behavior, his final demise ironically allowed us to see the man behind the mask for his true artistry and talent. Michael Jackson created the MTV era. He was the first artist to offer the most complete package of visuals and artistry: gorgeous good looks, innovative dance moves, off the hook melodies, and a sweet voice not to mention creating the whole music video phenomenon with “Thriller”. Overnight people were wearing Michael Jackson jackets and moonwalking in school hallways.


What seemed like a picture perfect transition from child prodigy, to teen heart throb, to super stardom turned into a personal tragedy of excesses. Once he hit his thirties his eccentricities seemed to catch up with him whether it was his frequently changing physical appearances or strange lifestyle. He was no longer the shockingly handsome, wildly talented yet painfully shy young man but a middle-aged freak trapped in a missed childhood coasting on a cocktail of drugs.


Yet the world was fascinated with Michael more as a train wreck as the years went by. Still, the strange thing is that when you look at all his recent work after his death, you can’t help but be touched by the fact that he was and still is a super star in the truest sense of the word. Listening back to his hits I can’t help but be amazed by the breadth of songs he created from classic dance numbers, rock heavy songs to current R&B flavored tracks. His lyrics are poignant and vocal abilities highly under-appreciated for the breadth of expression that it possessed.


When you look at other superstars from the same generation such as Prince and Madonna who’ve managed to keep aging as much at bay without wrecking their looks or health you can’t help but wish that Michael could have taken a similar path instead of ruining himself. Still, there’s no arguing that despite all that passed he was one of the most gentle and sensitive superstars of this era and that nobody including himself could have saved him from his fragility.


It’s the sadness of humanity that some people can be given everything and yet be killed by the temptation of excesses. Now that he’s gone we can separate the myth and listen to his songs for artistry and the messages he left for the world. Rest in peace Michael.

Blink

Blink is Malcolm Glaswell’s take on the art of making snap decisions that in many cases out perform a long, drawn out response. We’ve all been in situations where we thought, planned, and deliberated so long on something and it still ended up turning out wrong. Blink takes this phenomenon of “thin-slicing” and examines it from a variety of angles using interesting case studies, such as a fake statue sold to a museum after a year and a half of examination by experts only to be sniffed out by critics who instantly cringed from their gut reactions to the statue or the murder of a street youth by police officers too quick to draw the wrong conclusions.


Malcolm shows us how the brain can sometimes provide us will a surprising amount of insight in a split second that rival or out perform deliberate decisions and also how they can misfire or be manipulated by all the wrong ingredients. We’re given many case studies from the world of psychology and real life where extraneous impressions are stripped down to the essence whether it’s analyzing the stability of a marriage, reading facial expressions, or correctly assessing the risk of heart attack.



Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Living With Ubuntu

I’ve never been a fan of windows. Switching to a mac was definitely one of the best things that I’ve ever done in my life. It opened my life to a world of stress free computing, until Leopard. I still like the mac and I think the fonts and visuals are nice but I’ve also noticed some prominent people like Mike Pilgrim and Cory Doctorow moving off of macs and using Linux distributions like Ubuntu.


Work as a programmer requires a lot of server-side stuff and most of this is exclusively unix/linux especially if you are using open source frameworks. My curiosity was probably piqued when I was forced to go back to Windows XP for my previous job. In order to stay away from windows I did most of my development on a test server and eventually started using CoLinux within my Windows machine. One thing I learned is that you really don’t want to become reliant on any single platform or operating system. It pays to be versatile. I’m confident that I can work on any platform, as long as I can develop using Vim. Plus, I was getting spoiled by the command “apt-get install” for a variety of development tools and programs whenever setting up servers as opposed to the “configure and compile” hell on macs (I’d rather not use fink or mac ports, and these don’t even compare to the ease of use that linux package managers have achieved).


I’ve been slowly getting more and more curious about Ubuntu. Can I get used to it? Does it really work as an everyday operating system? Does it look good? Yeah, macs do that to you.


One of the main reasons was that I ended up ordering a netbook, Dell Mini 9 Inspiron to be exact. It has some wonderful specs 64GB SSD hard drive, 2GB RAM and a decent processor. I had two options for an operating system, Windows XP or Ubuntu. Windows is not a choice to me and it would also require lower machine specs (due to their backwards vendor agreements). I wanted something I could carry around with me and do some hacking on the train since I spend so much time on the commute and even more time tied to my desk at the office. Although, I know that I could hack the Dell to run OS X, I wasn’t convinced that it would be a good choice. Plus, I wanted to save using up the limited hard drive, which I know will be more than enough for lighter operating system.


In preparation for my netbook I decided to re-appropriate a computer that was sitting unused for my Ubuntu adventures. Set up was straight forward. I just kept looking stuff up and running “apt-get install” as needed. There were some tricky things and I ended up wiping my hard drive and redoing the install after screwing up the graphics but even then the learning curve was relatively mild.


General Impressions


I love it. The visuals aren’t bad at all, even though it requires a lot of tweaks here and there. One of the things about Ubuntu is that it’s infinitely customizable from the source down. The desktop feels like a cross between Windows and OS X. I’m sure they get a lot of their ideas from both sides. I got everything I wanted from my Ubuntu install from transparent terminals (for vim), smoothed fonts, and all the software I need (basically FireFox for browsing and all the development tools that are way too easy to install). Since I’ve been using the mac for a while, I have my vim setup in a code repository along with a bunch of other dot files needed to customize my shell environment.


Productivity


This operating system is really built for productivity. First of all, there aren’t games (not a gamer but still) and no iTunes. The operating system is lightweight and there are a lot less distractions. Since I’ll be keeping my mac around for some time, I can safely keep all my media and other distractions away from me. Switching operating systems is the ultimate contextual switch so I’d like to keep it this way for as long as possible.


Also, Ubuntu has a variety of productivity tools that are even better than anything I’ve used on OS X or Windows. For example, the todo list/task manager Tasque comes with Remember the Milk integration built in! I’ve been longing for something like this on the mac for ages. It could use some work with syncing but I’m more than happy. Evolution is a great email/calendar client that tightly integrates with Google Calendar and other services. Keeping your system current is really simple and you can do it with a single command from the terminal or use the supplied GUI. If you think the Windows release cycle of 7+ years is ridiculous and Apple’s somewhere around 1.5 years is awesome, you’ll love Ubuntu’s 6 month cycle. Not to mention package updates are frequent so staying current is really simple (and involves a lot less headaches in terms of regressions etc.).


Light


Although the operating system is your typical heavy duty unix system with a great desktop, the system requirements are ridiculously low and it consumes less resources like your hard drive. In fact, I use an 80GB hard drive of which 12GB is a partition holding a botched install but I still have plenty of room and will continue to. All the packages I’ll ever need for development and otherwise are a simple “apt-get install away”. In the rare cases I need to compile, it’s a smooth ride as well. The stability of the system is exactly what you’d expect (although the distribution upgrade can be trouble for some).


All Open


I love that everything tied to this project with the exception of certain drivers and other commercial packages are open source. All the crucial components are developed by a community of people who care. You can be assured that desktop linux will keep getting better for everyone for decades to come since people will be standing on the shoulder of giants. If Ubuntu starts taking wrong turns, a group of talented people will start offering a better alternative. In fact, there are already too many alternatives to name and any of those could possibly be my next distribution of choice. It gives you power over what you use and opportunities for lots of education and discovery.


All in all I can’t wait to get my hands on a personal machine I can carry around with me and get even more acquainted with Linux! Unfortunately, the Dell Mini Inspiron I ordered on March 31 is yet to arrive and will likely be in my hands sometime at the beginning of June. However, Dell has pushed back my order no less that 3 times so I frankly don’t trust them. The only thing I know is that there is some kind of a global 64GB SSD hard drive shortage, at least with their supplier. I guess I’ll just get my fix at work and read a little more on the commute.

Twits and Such for 2009-04-24

  • damn, I want to go home already #
  • Life, it’s whatever’s left after you subtract work and taxes #
  • installing mac fonts on Ubuntu 9.04 official #
  • Challenges come in different flavors. There’s no right answer but there’s always a right outcome #
  • limits, it’s what you get when possibilities scare you #
  • Don’t count them before they hatch. Might be snake eggs #