The Informant

Matt Damon is a fine actor. He always adds subtle touches to his portrayals. The Informant is no different. He let himself go physically to play a middle-aged executive that decides to blow the whistle on his company. Everything seems to be going well until the so-called “informant” gets caught up in his own web of deceit. It was a somewhat dark comedy but at the same time light-hearted. Matt was pretty funny and convincing as Mark Whitacre. The only failing of this movie is that it lacked punch. There weren’t any comedic highs, just an amusing portrayal of a corrupt company bureaucracy versus a federal bureaucracy. I thought the pacing was a bit off as well since a lot of the climax and twists happened near the end but there wasn’t enough suspense to expect anything like that during the first three quarters of the movie. Still, I found it entertaining and well-written. It’s a shame that subtle movies are simply under-appreciated because both the director and actors were on top of their craft.

Your Brain and Cardiovascular Exercise

It turns out that cardiovascular exercise is really good for your brain. I’ve been getting enough regular cardiovascular exercise to the point that I seriously need my daily kick. I’m not sure if strength exercise has the same kind of effect, probably much less so but even then after a day of thinking and mental exhaustion from battling with the computer. I’ve come home dead tired wanting to do nothing but lie down and die. Usually, I’d obey my so-called instinct only to wake up the next day feeling more tired than when I went to sleep. The funny thing about exercise is that after the first few minutes I feel more refreshed and all the fatigue vanishes. The same goes for anxiety situations. I never quite noticed this before for whatever reason but it’s something I’ve gotten addicted to lately. I can actually feel an endorphin kick setting in after the first 10 minutes of exercise.

The brain responds to cardiovascular exercise quite well, boosting neuron regeneration and releasing endorphins. Some schools are experimenting with making it mandatory to use the treadmill for a session before classes. As a result, attendance is up and so are grades. It makes you wonderer how we’ve managed to stray from something so fundamental.

From Vim to Emacs

The other day pretty much out of the blue I decided to switch my main editor from Vim to Emacs. Well, it wasn’t totally random as these things are. I’ve had to write more Japanese lately and Vim just wasn’t cutting it.

I’ve been using Vim for several years now. Originally I started using Vim out of necessity. I was about to change jobs and would no longer be able to use Textmate as my main editor. I didn’t really know much about using editors back then. I started with Ruby on Rails and that pretty much sold me on using Macs and Textmate. I barely used Textmate for anything fancy other than the odd tab-completion and some odd snippets. I suppose that using whatever basic memo pad editor that comes with the computer wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

However, this being Japan and the chance of using a Mac for programming being quite slim I decided to switch to Vim. The idea was that I wouldn’t be bound to any platform and not have to relearn the use of an editor. At that point the choice came down to Vim or Emacs. Neither of them really appealed to me. I’ve had terrifying brushes with both and tried to stay away from them. With Vim I could get in but not get out. How do I enter something? How do I even quit this thing? With Emacs the key combinations looked like alien code that I couldn’t decipher. In the end I decided on Vim because once I figured out that I needed to be aware of the mode I was in (either navigation or input) then I could stumble with the rest.

Learning an editor like Vim didn’t really make me a better programmer. I did become proficient with keyboard navigation but I still wasn’t using all the features. I did love the fact that I had one setup that I could take with me everywhere. All you have to do is clone your settings directory with all your plug-ins and you could setup shop in a matter of days.

One thing that bothered me about Vim was the fact that inputting Japanese was simply not feasible at least for me. Basically, Vim and Japanese input are modal in nature. When you type Japanese you put in the spelling and then you convert it to the proper Chinese characters. So with Vim you have to go into input mode and then switch to Japanese input mode, convert it to the proper characters, switch out of it and exit input mode. Essentially I stopped writing Japanese.

Another thing was the setup. Although there are now good packages for using Vim out of the box like MacVim, getting the command line version to compile was a chore when setting up the proper ruby and Perl bindings, some things that certain features depended on. I definitely put in too many plug-ins trying to cover all the Textmate features it was missing. In order to extend Vim’s features you could learn an esoteric shell language exclusively written to extend Vim called Vimscript. It’s kind of like Bash but a bit worse. Some people wrote their plug-ins in ruby or Perl and added the bare basic wrappers in Vimscript. I kept a safe distance from it all.

Naturally, with all the plug-ins, including many of a dubious nature, my setup became a bit of a nightmare. Load was a bit slow and plug-ins that did complicated things like matching parentheses and indenting code didn’t quite work sometimes and just got in your way.

Having said that, navigation was quite a breeze and actually quite fun. I could stay on the home row and jump around a file with ease through a combination of letters and numbers. If I was to set things up today, I’m sure I would have less plug-ins and a more stable setup. However, it still wouldn’t make it easier to write Japanese with it. Even the best plug-ins would be limited in what they could do.

Emacs on the other hand doesn’t switch modes. You navigate and manipulate text with an assortment of finger-twisting commands that even gangstas in LA would have trouble performing. Have you ever tried pressing down control and the letter “v” at once? Or how about “ctrl x meta m” or something like that? To get anything done, you essentially press these crazy combinations all day. Of course, this isn’t as hard as it seems when you get used to it. In fact, it starts to become natural just like you go up and down in Vim with “j” and “k”. The only reason I was able to make the transition was by enabling sticky keys though. I press ctrl, meta and alphabets separately aside from the really easy to press ones.

The good thing is that I can navigate and execute commands without first catching myself on whether I’m in Japanese or English. I can do everything I do in English that I do with Japanese. I always wondered why a lot of the respected hackers in Japan used Emacs.

The amazing thing about Emacs is that it basically adopts a programming language Elisp at its core to extend functionality. It has its own Lisp language and interpreter built in! Once you start delving into Emacs, the things you can do are nothing short of astounding. You can surf the Internet, manage your calendar, read email, chat, irc, blog, twitter, gtd, and whatever crazy thing you can dream of. There’s an amazing group of elite hackers developing plug ins and even enhancing Emacs. After all these decades the core is still in active development even though the interface is essentially text.

I can say that after a couple weeks of tinkering with it, I’m constantly amazed at the things I can do with it. Even with a ton of plug ins loaded up it’s very responsive. Start up is slightly slower than Vim but not that noticeable, especially once your extensions are compiled (yes, you can compile extensions through Emacs). I’ve got everything from on the fly spell checking, indentation, intellisense like auto-complete, dictionary look ups, among a truckload of other things working for me like a charm.

Everything I need is right here. Even manuals are easily accessed and looking up functions are easy. It’s like a self-contained distraction-free text universe at your fingertips. The downside is that you could lose yourself for days twiddling with things and adding yet more features. The GTD system called “Org Mode” is probably the world’s most powerful yet flexible system with crazy integration. It takes a while to get to a point where you feel settled once you start discovering all this amazing features and messing with settings. I never thought I’d touch Elisp but I was writing some functions in a matter of days and pouring over code to get a feature just right or tracking down conflicts. That was an unexpected bonus.

One Year Without Alcohol

I went one year without drinking. There were three separate occasions I more or less got pressured into pretend sipping or an aperitif but otherwise I was sober the whole time and didn’t really obsess about it. It took a while for friends and people around me to realize I was dead serious about not drinking but once I established the fact, people left me alone. I ended up having a shot of tequila about one week after the anniversary. That seriously messed my head up. The alcohol felt like it got injected into my veins and took me a while to ground myself. For about a week after the tequila kept popping into my head.


Now I know why alcoholics and drug addicts need to stop cold turkey. It’s crazy but you spend all this time avoiding it and you don’t realize how much your commitment and reinforcement of values are doing behind the scene. One one level, you’re freed from all the baggage of keeping your “streak” going. On the other hand, you need to make sure all hell doesn’t break loose and wait for it to pass. I was never a heavy drinker though I always had a tendency to binge. When I stopped drinking my propensity to drink was getting more and more frequent. I abstained from alcohol a couple months before. This time I was slowly getting fed up with myself at how easily I’d go for a beer or two after work to relax, rather than just let the stress go, and then the tipping point came when I had too many drinks and totally embarrassed myself. Something inside me told me that I had to hit the “reset” button. So, I said to myself, “I’m not drinking for at least six months”.


What happens when you don’t drink alcohol? This is what happened with me.


  1. Slept way better.
  2. Felt way better.
  3. Went out less.
  4. Never stayed until the morning train at a party (this being Japan).
  5. People around you drink less.
  6. You manage to socialize with people at parties anyway (you just need to get used to it at first, if you’re shy and use alcohol to loosen up)

I know that recent studies claim heavy drinkers still live longer than people who don’t drink. These studies contradict each other every other month but I wouldn’t doubt the social component of drinking leads to better health. Still, I can’t really deny that I feel a lot better not drinking because the quality of life is way better when there’s no alcohol from last night in your system even without hangovers. It’s a lifestyle choice. Although that tequila shot puts me back on a new journey, I’d rather not go back to drinking although I’m not going to be fanatic about it. Just go with the flow and right now I’m not feeling alcohol.

5 Startup Lessons I Learned from a Farmer

Several weeks ago I spend a few days on Nakagomi Orchard (facebook page) WWOOFing. The idea was to get away from city life and spend time away from technology by volunteering on a farm in exchange for food and board. I never expected to see entrepreneurial spirit in full force. Our host, Nakagomi Kazumasa was not your typical farmer. Armed with a masters degree in literature from an American university, he was well-read and passionate about farming. Farming in Japan is a declining industry even as the country is fully dependent on imports (Japan’s self-sufficiency is around 40%) and real income for farmers is around half of what it used to be in the immediate post war era (hence why his parents could afford to send him to the states for college despite the wider economic gap with the United States at the time). When you combine this with Japan’s aging population and the ongoing migration of young people to the city for jobs and other opportunities the picture is quite bleak. In fact, many farmers in the area are going out of business due to financial difficulties, the lack of a heir or a combination of both. The fact that Nakagomi Orchard can weather this storm in a declining industry shows that they are doing something quite right. Here’s a short list of things that I saw at the farm that any startup should take heed.


Be passionate


Within 10 minutes of arriving on the farm I was whisked away to the orchard, dressed in overalls with tools in hand. After a small break and introduction I was weeding around a variety of trees. Kazu told us that weeding is an important part of farming because the weeds suffocate the roots and steal nutrients that should go to the trees. You have to get the root of the weeds otherwise it would grow back stronger but not damage the roots. Lazy farmers with badly tended orchards suffered lower yields and low quality crops.


Kazu was very friendly but laser-focused on farming. He never told anyone to work harder or faster but his passion was contagious and it kept an assortment of volunteers focused on work. While weeding he would go into details about the process of farming and the work involved as the season progressed.


It wasn’t just him either, everyone in the family was passionate about the family business, something I’ll go into more depth.


Everyone is an entrepreneur


Another striking feature of the orchard was how everyone in the family was essentially an entrepreneur. The family spanned several generations from grandmother, sons and wife, and grandchild. Everyone had their own role. Grandmother tended to the house, making lunch or readying snacks for the tea breaks that punctuated farm work. The daughter-in-law cooked dinner for the volunteers. Kazu oversaw work on the farm and the nephew helped out.


However, at a moment’s notice the daughter-in-law would be driving a van to the orchard busing volunteers and giving them directions. You could ask any member of the family what tomorrow’s weather forecast was and they would tell you including the highs and lows. At one point a shipping company visited us during lunch break and it turned into an impromptu business meeting where they compared shipping costs with the competitor and discussed the pros and cons in detail. It was amazing how quickly family members would switch between roles and adjust to the environment. They were very sensitive to the business and political climate in addition to the weather. Grandma read the newspaper daily and the daughter-in-law always watched the news. Everyone had a stake in keeping the orchard running and it showed.


Innovate, innovate, innovate


One thing that came up over and over again during our stay is how the orchard continued to innovate. Nakagomi Orchard pioneered a variety of new farming techniques in the area that significantly increased yield (Kazu’s brother is head of agricultural research at one of the prefecture’s labs). Not only that, the orchard constantly innovated by opening up direct sales channels and experiment with a variety of marketing strategies. They were always searching for newer and better ways to increase their yield or sales (either increasing profit margins or cutting costs). It was crucial to their survival because other orchards in the area would quickly copy any innovative technique they saw as successful. Even nature kept them on their toes, a technique that worked on keeping birds away one season rarely worked after a couple months. This lead Kazu to seek a competitive advantage that other orchards in the area couldn’t easily replicate.


Marketing


One thing Kazu was quick to incorporate was internet technology. Whether it be social media, SEO, blogging or international volunteers (via WWOOF), Kazu put his English skills to good work to take advantage of this. While the Orchard’s website might not win any design awards, it places highly in search engines for a variety of terms that ensure a constant flow of customers and volunteers. Neighboring farms might imitate any old school marketing technique but none of them can match Kazu’s web savy. Through a combination of these skills he was able to sell his orchard’s products directly (better margins than going through the local agricultural association), have a steady flow of volunteers to help with the labor shortage, and ensure that his orchard got a steady flow of attention.


Stay open


How does Kazu keep up with all this? For one he is always open to suggestions. Many volunteers who come and go give him suggestions and information regarding social media. In fact, the facebook page was something I suggested with the other volunteers that were there. He simply said, “thanks for the suggestion, lets do it”.


While, getting away from the city and the internet in general was refreshing, seeing a real entrepreneur in action was probably the best thing about the trip (not to mention a breath-taking view of Mt. Fuji). When you’re knee deep in tech blogs it’s easy to forget that there is a whole wealth of knowledge that startups can learn from by stepping outside and talking with people doing their thing in traditional industry. You never know what you might learn.

Evidence that Apple’s New Tablet Will Be Called iSlate

Although it’s not much to go by, if you look at the registrars for the possible names “iTablet” and “iSlate” only iSlate uses the same registrar as the other Apple .  I guess we’ll find out next week.  Markmonitor’s header reads “Brand Protection, Domain Management, Anti Fraud Solutions”.   Sounds like something Apple would be interested in.

Domain Name: APPLE.COM
Registrar: MARKMONITOR INC.
Whois Server: whois.markmonitor.com
Referral URL: http://www.markmonitor.com
Name Server: NSERVER.APPLE.COM
Name Server: NSERVER.ASIA.APPLE.COM
Name Server: NSERVER.EURO.APPLE.COM
Name Server: NSERVER2.APPLE.COM
Name Server: NSERVER3.APPLE.COM
Name Server: NSERVER4.APPLE.COM
Status: clientDeleteProhibited
Status: clientTransferProhibited
Status: clientUpdateProhibited
Updated Date: 21-jan-2009
Creation Date: 19-feb-1987
Expiration Date: 20-feb-2011

Domain Name: ISLATE.COM
Registrar: MARKMONITOR INC.
Whois Server: whois.markmonitor.com
Referral URL: http://www.markmonitor.com
Name Server: NS1.MARKMONITOR.COM
Name Server: NS2.MARKMONITOR.COM
Name Server: NS3.MARKMONITOR.COM
Name Server: NS4.MARKMONITOR.COM
Name Server: NS5.MARKMONITOR.COM
Name Server: NS6.MARKMONITOR.COM
Name Server: NS7.MARKMONITOR.COM
Status: clientDeleteProhibited
Status: clientTransferProhibited
Status: clientUpdateProhibited
Updated Date: 26-oct-2009
Creation Date: 30-oct-2004
Expiration Date: 30-oct-2011

Domain Name: IPHONE.COM
Registrar: MARKMONITOR INC.
Whois Server: whois.markmonitor.com
Referral URL: http://www.markmonitor.com
Name Server: NSERVER.APPLE.COM
Name Server: NSERVER2.APPLE.COM
Name Server: NSERVER3.APPLE.COM
Name Server: NSERVER4.APPLE.COM
Status: clientDeleteProhibited
Status: clientTransferProhibited
Status: clientUpdateProhibited
Updated Date: 21-jan-2009
Creation Date: 24-aug-1995
Expiration Date: 23-aug-2010

Domain Name: ITABLET.COM
Registrar: DOTREGISTRAR, LLC.
Whois Server: whois.dotregistrar.com
Referral URL: http://www.dotregistrar.com
Name Server: DNS.ITABLET.COM
Name Server: WWW.ITABLET.COM
Status: clientDeleteProhibited
Status: clientTransferProhibited
Status: clientUpdateProhibited
Updated Date: 11-apr-2008
Creation Date: 08-oct-2001
Expiration Date: 08-oct-2011

Domain Name: IPAD.COM
Registrar: NETWORK SOLUTIONS, LLC.
Whois Server: whois.networksolutions.com
Referral URL: http://www.networksolutions.com
Name Server: A.NS.INTERLAND.NET
Name Server: B.NS.INTERLAND.NET
Name Server: C.NS.INTERLAND.NET
Status: clientTransferProhibited
Updated Date: 22-apr-2009
Creation Date: 21-apr-1997
Expiration Date: 22-apr-2019

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.

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