Archive for July, 2009

Last week, I went to another doctor about my hip.  I had to go to a separate one because my insurance wouldn’t cover my previous one.  They did an assessment and told me that the good news is that my hip is not falling apart; the bad news is that I have to go to yet another specialist.

They referred me to a guy who specializes in hip assessments and this type of surgery (yet another guy).  So, I phoned up the place only to realize that he is part of the same network of surgeons/doctors that my insurance does not cover.  Translation: it will cost me a ton of money to go and see this to get my hip diagnosed with the follow up.

I had to change doctors, but the doctors I have to change to also aren’t covered.


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Diversified skillsets

I’ve been procrastinating for a very long time to get a new set of mailbox keys for my renter in the condo that I own.  Finally, I took the bull by the horns and called up a locksmith to come down and replace the lock.  I phoned them up and explained that I needed a new lock and they asked me if I had the key.  I said no, and they replied that they’d then have to drill into it and that’d cost $110.  I said fine, what choice did I have?

It turns out that I did have a choice.  I hurried on down there ahead of time and brought my set of lock picks with me.  Yes, that’s right, I have a set of lock picks.  I went to the mailbox and stuck in the pick and jiggered with it for a while.  It wasn’t working very well so I switched picks.  I played it with it for about a minute or two… and it gave!  I had successfully picked the lock of my own mailbox.

I was pretty proud of myself.  I still had to get the lock replaced but at least I saved the charge of drilling into the mailbox.

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A few years ago, I wanted to be a full time professional stock market speculator.  If you go back through my post archives, especially in 2006 and the start of 2007, you will find a lot of posts on my thoughts on the market.  I decided I couldn’t do it for two reasons:

  1. I hadn’t lived through a bear market yet and didn’t know how I would react
  2. I didn’t have enough trading capital.

I mention this because I recently picked up the book Enhancing Trader Performance.  This is a book by Brett Steenbarger, who is a psychologist and trader.  The book is an examination of what the characteristics are of top performers in their field.  For example, many of us like to play sports like football or baseball, but not all of us are star athletes.  What is the difference between the average folk and the elite performers?  What makes them so different?

Steenbarger went and examined that and wrote a book about it.  It relates to stock traders in particular but he also examines athletes such as Tiger Woods and Nolan Ryan.  Clearly, these are athletes that are not only great, but exceptionally great.  They are among the greatest in their respective fields.

So what makes great traders/athletes great?  I’ve only read a bit of the book, but here are some things I have picked up:

  1. Elite performers have a natural liking of what they do.  To them, practice doesn’t seem like a chore, it is enjoyable.
  2. Elite performers have a natural ability to do what they do.  You can learn a skill, but elite performers gravitate towards the skills towards which they have a natural affinity.
  3. Elite performers see things differently than the rest of us.  For example, a rookie football receiver and an elite receiver would see the field in very different ways.  A star receiver would recognize holes, see patterns and find ways to get open that a rookie could not.  Star performers literally process information differently than the rest of us.
  4. Because they process information differently, star performers can learn to do things in new ways that the rest of us don’t see.  They can discern different patterns that an average or above-average performer wouldn’t.  Their brains can come to different conclusions than other people do given the same set of data and this gives them an edge.

There’s tons more but this will do for a start.  Given what I have learned from this book, what sorts of abilities do I have which I can be a star performer?

  1. Ballroom dancing – I am competent at this but I am not a star performer.  I don’t really have the desire or drive to put in the work required to really excel at this.  To be sure, it’s fun and I do it a lot, and I enjoy it.  But it’s not a natural ability of mine and my brain doesn’t process information quickly enough to see new moves in dancing while I am doing it.
  2. Magic– As a magician, I would definitely say I am competent.  I would not say I am an expert.  Why?  Because to me, practicing sometimes seems like work that I do not enjoy and I often find myself having to motivate myself to rehearse.  There are periods of time when I do tons of practicing but there are also stretches when I do not.But I am not just competent.  I can pick up tricks quickly, I can learn to see new uses for tricks and I am constantly trying to update myself.  However, my delivery is not as naturally smooth as it could be and I don’t put in the effort necessary to be an elite performer.  I’m simply above average.
  3. Anti-spam researcher – I work in email security for a living, specifically, I fight spam.  In this regards, I would absolutely consider myself an expert.  This is particularly true when it comes to the data analysis portion of my job.  I thrive on data.  I write scripts all the time to gather data and parse it.  I do this for fun.  I constantly am looking at data and I constantly finding myself seeing new and different patterns in the data that others simply do not see.I find that I can process information differently.  I can “see” things from end-to-end and quickly determine whether or not something will work, and I can often do it in less than five seconds.  I have done this so much that I can see if a message is spam or not in less than two seconds.  I can screen entire screens of email and easily pick up spam messages from normal messages.  I can do all of this effortlessly because I really enjoy doing it.  It doesn’t feel like work; to me, it’s fun.  It’s a challenge and when it becomes too easy, I want to move onto the next challenge.

This exercise, examining myself, has been enjoyable.  It explains why some people are elite performers and others are average, and it also explains why some people are better in fields than others.  It’s because those are their natural skill sets and they are doing what they are “meant” to be doing.

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Last Wednesday, I lost my cell phone.  "Great," I muttered.  I looked everywhere in my home, my office at work, and the probably location in which I lost it (one of the cafes at Microsoft).  No luck.  I wasn’t looking forward to it but I resigned myself to the fact I’d have to repopulate my address book.

Luckily, I have an extra cell phone at home, a Blackberry Pearl.  "Well, now’s as good a time to start using it as any."  The only problem with it is that the battery is a piece of junk.  It doesn’t even recharge at all.  I had to go buy a new one.  I went down to the local AT&T store and tried to get one but they didn’t have one in stock.  I went to the other AT&T store and they didn’t have one either.  I’d have to order one online which meant waiting about a week.  Sigh.  Fine, whatever.

Then yesterday, I went down to the University of Washington to consult with another doctor about my hip, which is not getting better.  I found the University just fine but finding the clinic was a bit of a challenge because I had to drive around the whole campus, go through a cave, climb up a hill in order to come to a wall and then speak "Friend" in Elvish to reveal the secret entrance to this place.  As I left my car, I decided to quickly check something in my bag (which I left in my car) before heading out again.

I went in, had the appointment (where I was told I’d have to make another appointment… and the bottom line is that my hip might be SOL until I get a hip replacement in 10-15 years) and then came out of the building.  As I was walking to my car, felt my pants pockets.  They felt a little thin; I expected to feel my keys in my pocket but I didn’t.  I immediately figured out what happened: I had left my keys in the car.  I had locked myself out of the car.

Now consider this: I had lost my cell phone the week before and I couldn’t replace it.  And now, just when I need it to call a locksmith, I have neither my cell phone nor my backup cell phone.  And furthermore, I’m no where near my home where I do have back up keys.  I was stuck, locked out of my vehicle with very, very few options.

A perfect storm of inopportunity.  Strange how all of that stuff just seems to pile up in compressed time frames, doesn’t it?

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Sit ups update

I took a couple of days off last week from doing sit ups to give my stomach muscles time to recover.  I picked it back up again this week.

I have made some real progress, I believe.  I did a set of 130, rested for a couple of minutes, did 90, rested, and then did 30.  That is a grand total of 250.  Not bad, I think.  My goal is to eventually hit 200 without stopping, rest, and then do 100 without stopping.

Will I get there?  We shall see.

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This is the second part of my post.  If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you read part 1.  This one won’t make sense if you don’t read that one.

As I was saying in my other post, they’re threatening to cut off my access eventually when we move the servers.  And guess what?  I’m the Program Manager in charge of moving the servers.  So basically, I get to be the one to sign my own death warrant when it comes to cutting off my access.  Just great.

The other part I am not enjoying as much is the attempt to box me into things that I don’t enjoy doing.  Part of being a Program Manager is tasking, scheduling, being a go-between, collecting requirements, and so forth.  It’s not something I’m particularly good at.  I have improved marginally at it, but I don’t really like it.  I do it because it’s important and it has to be done.  But I get virtually no fulfillment out of it.  Unlike data mining and researching important things, this is not what I look forward to in the morning.  I have to force myself to do it.  I know it’s part of the job and so I do it to the best of my ability, but I have always been grateful that I have access to the data to be able to research ideas that tweak my brain.

The thing is that most of the people around me don’t want me doing the research and data mining and do want me doing managerial stuff.  My Dev Lead, Test Lead, other Program Managers… even my manager probably wouldn’t complain too much.  So you see, these people don’t actually have a problem with my access to data being cut off because it would force me to concentrate more fully on this particular area that I am not good at.  The theory is that if I wasn’t distracted from doing it (because my mind wanders to “fun stuff”), then I would get good at the other stuff.  I think that theory is flawed and that the results they want would never occur.

The problem with this managerial stuff is that ultimately I think it’s just a bunch of secretarial work.  If all I’m doing is scheduling people’s work time, talking to other people to follow up on such-and-such item, collecting requirements (with no additional input from me because this other team didn’t ask for it), asking when such-and-such work item will be done, where’s the creative input?  Why does it even matter if I do it?  What value do I add?  Why not just hire an executive assistant for the group?

I was talking about this with another Program Manager the other day and said that this whole Program Manager thing is turning into a secretarial position for everyone else.  He said “Do you think Jake is a secretary?  Or Bob?  He’s really technical but he doesn’t do it, he does PM stuff…” (note: not their real names)  At the time I didn’t have an answer but as I thought about, what do they do?  They follow up when a certain project will be done, schedule meetings, do timelines, etc… exactly what I was saying.

My manager had myself and my Dev Lead and other program manager in a meeting the other day (same guy as above) and he was saying that PMs drive teams with influence, this shouldn’t turn into a documentation position, ie, PMs just do documentation.  At the time, it sounded good.  But now that I think about it, I think it’s all bravado.  People can talk a good talk about how something should be this or should be that, but the reality is that it’s not.  Reality trumps a should, every single time.

So basically, I feel like I’m being boxed in.  On the one hand, my access is being cut off by people who think I shouldn’t have it, and on the other hand I feel it’s useless to complain to anyone because they’d be happy that I don’t have it and now have to do the stuff I am not good at doing.  I could do that stuff as long as I had my access.  Without it, there’s nothing to look forward to.

That is where I feel the position is going.  And I don’t like it.  And I feel powerless to stop it.  And I wonder whether or not it’s worthwhile sticking around watching what I perceive is a train wreck in slow motion.

The one thing that really keeps me going is that I am perceived as a maverick.  Even typing it right now makes me smile.  It means I think for myself.  It comes from being a stock trader.  When trading, you absolutely must think for yourself.  Others can have opinions but you have to develop a style and feel that fits your own personality.  But more than that, you have to be willing to accept the consequences of your own actions and in trading, the pain comes quicker than later.  I learned to listen to others but to ultimately make my own decisions.  I live and die by them.  And, I wanted to be a stock trader before I wanted to be in Internet security.

Work is starting to get shrouded in more layers of bureaucracy.  I follow procedures in some things, actually a lot of things.  But there are times when I think the process would get in the way so I short circuit them.  For example, I’ll write my own scripts to collect data I need, or send data away.  But I get results.  I always get results.  For a company that claims to be focused on results, they sure seem to value the process more highly than the results.  But I have never caused any serious damage to any production system.  None of my stuff even touches production these days, the last time was back in September 2008 and I cleared it with a lot of people (and it didn’t break anything, in fact, it reduced our network load by 10%).  But the point is that I live by making my own decisions; if I feel that process is blocking, I am not averse to short circuiting it.  I can’t stand this ambiguous process that can take days or, more often, weeks to get done.  It doesn’t make sense to me.  In trading, time is crucial and it seems like the company doesn’t value that so much.

So that’s my dilemma.  I don’t like where I think my position is headed.  Not sure where to head from here.

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This past week marked my five year anniversary of working in the anti-spam space.  In that time I have seen a lot of spam cross my desk, and I have worked on a lot of features.  I have enjoyed my time immensely:

  • I’ve gotten to travel
  • I’ve gotten to work with interesting technology
  • I get paid well with good benefits
  • Most importantly, I’ve enjoyed my day-to-day work.  There have been many days when I have looked forward to going to into the office and stayed late… because I liked doing what I was doing.

Now that I have hit five years, I have to take a step back and evaluate where I’ve been, where I am and where I’m going.  The first is positive, the second is alright but I don’t know if I like the third.

I’m pretty certain nobody that I work with reads this blog so I’m going to post my thoughts on the matter here.  This past year I have been enjoying my work less and less.  That last bullet point doesn’t apply anymore.  I feel that things have become much more adversarial and that I am being pushed into tasks that I don’t really like.

I’m currently reading Jim Cramer’s book Confessions of a Street Addict.  Cramer was a hedge fund manager but really enjoyed writing.  He started a website TheStreet.com where he was the writer but had other people manage it.  He couldn’t be too involved in it, however, because it’s illegal to own stocks in size like Cramer did and then hype them up on his web site.  So, he had to have disclaimers.  Cramer was a star trader, went on TV to get lots of publicity in order to drive readers and subscribers to his site.  People would have thought on the outside that he controlled everything, but on the inside he had very little influence.  The CEO of the company would keep him out of loop and he got the impression that the management of the company viewed him more of an obstacle; it’s the complete opposite of how the outside viewed him.

I feel the same way.  To many outside of our spam team, it looks like I have a lot of influence within it.  But I don’t.  It’s been waning for months and months now.  And it’s probably going to get a lot worse.

There’s a project afoot to move our existing servers out of California and into Texas.  I have had access to that server for years.  But I fear that once they move it, they will cut off my access to it.  The reason is that I am seen as a bit of a maverick (that was supposed to be a criticism but I took it as a compliment — I am genuinely proud of being someone who makes their own decisions and acts upon them).  I do a lot of research on that box and sometimes people don’t agree with my methods.  Even though everything is either (a) cleared with the legal department, or (b) doesn’t affect anything in production, they still want to clamp down access because since I’m not a developer or a tester or a spam analyst (even though I know more about spam than anyone), I shouldn’t have that access.  They don’t like how I like to tinker around.

Tinkering around is perhaps my favorite activity.  I thrive on data and statistics.  I can do data analysis all day long.  One of my greatest strengths is to pore through piles and piles of data, extract meaning from it and then present it coherently.  I’m excellent at that.  I never get bored of it.  Writing scripts to data mine stuff and then present me with information, or to test something, is a hobby.  It’s the fourth bullet point above.  Cutting off my access to data is like cutting off my lifeblood.  It removes my favorite part of the job.

I can hear it now… if I want data then make a request through the dev team.  That would drive me crazy.  For one thing, I do all sorts of ad hoc analysis all of the time.  For another, why in the hell (forgive my language, but this is ticking me off just thinking about it) should I go through someone else who could take anywhere from 1 day to 14 days to do something (assuming it even gets approved) when I could easily do it myself?  It’s inefficient and places me at the mercy of someone else approving the work.  I have new ideas all of the time and I like to test them.  Cutting off that access would really bother me.

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It’s now been about a year since I signed the agreement to buy my real estate "investment."  In the interim one year, I’ve discovered that I don’t like owning real estate directly; I’d much rather invest through a trust if that’s possible.  I’d like the benefits but don’t want to do any of the work fixing up the place or chasing after mailbox keys.

Sometimes when people talk about real estate, they say that land is a good investment because after all, they aren’t making any more of it.  The implication is that land is a commodity and is subject to supply and demand.  Since the population of the world will keep going up, people will always need a place to live will therefore demand more land.  Since land is a fixed commodity and is non-renewable, its value will continue to rise.

As the current financial crisis has shown us, the value of land most assuredly does not continue to increase indefinitely.  Land, like oil or gold, is a commodity like anything else and is subject to bubbles and busts.  But I want to look at the underlying assumption – that the population of the world will keep going up.  Is this a valid assumption?

The short answer is no.  The world’s population is increasing but the rate of growth is decreasing.  This is because of advances in technology.  In the 3rd world, population growth is very high but in the developed world, it is quite low.  Western Europe has a very low growth rate, less than 1%.  Places like Bangladesh breed like rabbits.  The reason for this is that in underdeveloped nations, children are necessary because they are "free" labour.  You need a large family to work the grain fields and provide for you in older age.  Having a large family is a survival tool in order to produce.

There’s also the lack of technology.  People would have a lot of children because the mortality rate is so high.  Children often didn’t live past five years of age so parents would be "forced" to repopulate their stock.  However, with medical advances, children didn’t die so often in infancy and so families became larger; replenishment was now enlarging the brood.

But as technology extended the lives of children, it also decreased their necessity for the labor pool.  It became easier to grow crops with herbicides, pesticides and modern agricultural techniques.  Tractors and refineries increased production.  At the same time, the cost associated with raising children increased.  When you have to raise a child for 18 years and bear the cost of feeding, clothing, sheltering and educating them, suddenly having 12 kids (all of them surviving) is an economic burden.  The children are no longer paying for themselves and the reasons for having a family changes from basic survival to one of choice.

Today, European women have far fewer children than women in the developing world.  But during the middle ages they were having just as many.  When technology started to extend people’s lives and make basic survival easier, the birth rate declined as the economic costs of having children increased.  As the birth rate in Europe declined, the overall rate of growth of world population slowed as well.  And so it will be in the developing world; when technology starts extending people’s lives and makes basic survival easier, people will realize that reproducing no longer makes economic sense.  And then, the population will stabilize.  The UN estimates that by around 2050 or so, the world population will stabilize at around 9 billion.  They may be off by a billion or two, and the year may be out by a decade or so, but the point remains.  Population will not continue to rise indefinitely.

And if the world population does not continue to rise, then it doesn’t follow that land will become more and more scarce.  Businesses and people will want more land but the fact that "they aren’t making any more of it" will not be a relevant indicator of value.  It won’t matter that they aren’t making more of it because they aren’t making more people either sufficient to boost demand beyond it’s current level.

Real estate is valuable but human population growth is not something to bet on in the distant future.

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More tells in action

As I was saying in my other post, my friend and I went to the symphony.  Afterwards, we went out to get something to eat.  I hadn’t had any food before going and I was so hungry I could have eaten at Arby’s. 

We walked into a restaurant and sat down.  At the table next to us were a couple, a guy and a girl, and I presumed they were on a date.  Because of the angle at which we were seated, I could see her better than I could see him.  He was beside me whereas she was in front of me at angle.  I wasn’t even trying to read body language but I did it automatically.  Within 30 seconds she started flashing signals left, right, and center which signaled her interest in him.  He showed some body language also to demonstrate that he was in control.

  1. The hair flip – the hair flip is a pacification move in general.  She was fiddling with her hair which is something people (usually women) do to pacify themselves.  But in this context (male/female) it is a flirting signal to denote interest.
  2. The wrist show – when we are feeling open, we expose our arms.  When women are feeling receptive in a conversation, they invert their wrists and expose them.  Think about if someone holds their hands on their chin; if the wrist is open and facing outward, it denotes interest.
  3. The lean-to-you – this one is less flirty but more generally denotes interest.  When we are in good rapport with people, we lean towards them.  When we are less comfortable (or repulsed) we lean or turn away.  This girl was leaned toward the guy in conversation the entire time.

These were really easy to pick up on.  The one sign that the guy used to show his dominance was the lackadaisical position he had by stretching out.  Dominant people claim more territory.  The girl was leaned forward but had her legs tucked under her chair.  The guy was leaning forward but not nearly as much but has his legs stretched under the table, extending to her side of it.  He was claiming more territory.

I’m better able to pick up on these things when observing others but I am less good at it when I am engaged in conversation personally.  It usually takes me a minute or two to remember that I need to look for body language.  Once I do that, I am alert and start decoding it.  But I don’t do it automatically the way I do when I am watching others.  The flirting signals that I have seen in other couples are obvious but at the same time I have an ulterior motive.  If I can spot them in others, can I spot them when women are talking to me?

I think I can but again, I tend to forget at first.  I have to rely on memory of the conversation.  But when I do remember I generally come to the same conclusion: I’m not seeing any of the signals that clearly denote interest.  Signals of comfort?  Yes.  Stress? No.  Those are both good signs because the reverse of that would be bad.  But interest?  Not so much.


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Traffic issues

Yesterday, a friend and I went to the symphony.  Now, there’s construction going down one of the bridges that leads into Seattle.  As I was pulling off of a local road and about to pull onto I90, I saw that it was really backed up.  I made a split-second decision to peel off of that and try my chances on the 520, about 4 miles further north and the other major bridge into Seattle.

It was one of the worst decisions I have made in quite some time.

It took me almost two hours to get to my destination; traffic was that horrible.  If my friend Shaun Warkentin were with me, he would had a heart attack and died.  He then would have pulled out his portable defibrillator (which he carries around on himself), revived himself and then had a stroke and died again.  I would consider this no less than a miracle to see a corpse revive itself.

Once I finally got onto 520, a process that took 80 minutes from the time I decided to not do I90 and covered a distance of maybe 5 miles, I was able to travel a little faster.  From 520 to the bridge is a few miles but it, too, travels slow.  It travels slow until you get to the bridge.  I did some quick reasoning; 520 is two lanes with various merge lanes on the side.  The left lane is likely to move faster than the right lane because everyone is always merging into the right lane and therefore the lane will move slower than the left.  So, I pulled into the left lane.

My plan worked!  Both lanes still plodded along but making the decision to go into the left lane was the correct one.  I estimate that I shaved 10-20 minutes off my journey simply by changing lanes.  So my advice to people is this: if you’re ever in traffic that is moving slowly, make sure you stick to the lane that is furthest away from the lanes that merge in.  You’ll go way faster.

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Over the past few weeks, I have decided to exercise a little bit more by targeting one specific exercise: sit-ups.

I have a hard time regularly committing myself to exercise.  Every time I start and keep it going for a couple of weeks, I let it lag.  I can’t motivate myself to go to the gym to work out on the rowing machine, do the weights, etc.  I just can’t do it.  And exercising at home is no different.

So, I decided to concentrate on specific set, and that is the goal of doing as many sit-ups as I could.  My goal was simple: start small and work my way up.  Why sit-ups?  Because strong stomach muscles are good for lower back pain.  I don’t really have a lot of lower back pain but because of my hip sometimes I have darts of pain in my left side.  I decided that I had to increase my stomach strength.

I will never be a runner, nor a weight lifter.  But I think I can do this.  I started off with 80 sit-ups — a set of 40, rest, 20, rest, 20.  Then I increased it to 100.  Then 120.  When I first started, I did it three days in a row and had to stop for a couple of days because my stomach hurt.  Doing the sit-up was painful because the muscles I was working were sore and hadn’t had time to recover.  Now I can go at least three days in a row without much soreness except for one thing; I’ve increased my repetitions.  I can now do 200 in one session – a set of 100, rest, 60, rest, 30, rest, 10.  My goal is to get to do 200 straight.

I’ve kept this up for a few weeks now, better than almost all of my exercise sessions.  Hopefully, one day I can get to 300 without a rest.

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The types of tricks that I like to perform are the ones with limited sets of props.  I don’t like to carry a lot of stuff on me so I try to make sure that the effects I do don’t require a lot of set up.  This disqualifies a lot the full set from my repertoire but that’s the style of performer I am.  I prefer tricks with zero props but those are few and far between — the good ones, anyhow.  Usually, I require at least one or two but that’s alright.  If it’s a deck of cards or a post-id notepad and pen, that’ll do because the props are reusable.

One trick that I am starting to get mileage out of is the Book Test.  This is an effect I can do with my own props in the even that I want to stage a performance, or with no props in the event that I do it impromptu.  If I an planning to perform it, I usually bring three books with me to give the spectator a choice of books.  However, the impromptu version without my own books is also clever and that’s the effect I performed yesterday.

Myself and a friend were in a bookstore, and we were wandering through.  We got to the classics section, or maybe it was fiction, I don’t know.  We were randomly walking and I stopped at a bookshelf and grabbed random book off the bookshelf.  I started flipping through and asked my friend if he had read it.  He hadn’t, and neither had I.  I then closed the book and started riffling through the pages at the tip of my thumb and told him to say "Stop."  He said stop, I turned my head while opening the book to the page he stopped at.

I have it to him and told him to look at the first line on the left hand page (ie, the page he randomly chose) and to think of a word in that line.  Now keep in mind, this book was about 300 pages, around 20 lines per page and 10 words per line making 60,000 words.  But not only that, it was pulled from literally tens of thousands of books in the bookstore, making this selection of word that he peeked at one of millions!  I told him to picture the word in his mind, burn the letters onto a screen in his mind and then look at me.

"Is there a letter E in your word?"

"Yes," he said.

The letter E is easy because it’s the most common word in the alphabet.  "What about the letter P?"

"Yeah…" he answered.

"Hmm…" I started to read his body language.  "Your word can be used to describe a group of people."  He nodded slightly and smiled.  "Government," I continued as his eyes widened.  I watched him again.  "Somewhere in the law enforcement field."

He took a slight step backwards, clearly getting weirded out by this turn of events.  "You’re not thinking of lawyers… or judges… but instead, the word you are thinking of is the Police!"

"What the–?" he exclaimed.  "How did you do that?"

Indeed.  How did I do it?  I’ve wanted to perform this version of the effect – the book test in the book store — for a few weeks now.  I have decided simply to name the effect "Words."  I think it fits.

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Did you ever wonder why stuff grosses you out?  Or why you find it disgusting?

Some friends of mine were commenting with regards to their 8-month old that while there are some things that are less repulsive than before (like being spit up upon) there are other things that are just as disgusting now as they were in the very beginning.  That got me to thinking, why do some things disgust us and others do not?

The answer is rooted in evolutionary biology.  I took an online test one time where a bunch of different things of varying colors were shown to me and I had to click on the mouse Yes or No whether or not I found it gross.  I can’t remember where the test is (a Bing search might help), but at the end the interpretation was interesting.  Colors of things that we find repulsive, like brown or yellow of certain kinds of shape and texture, are gross because it’s a health defense mechanism.

Things that the body expels — waste — are bad for us.  That is why we expel them, because the body cannot process them anymore and getting rid of it is healthy for the body.  We don’t go near them afterwards because they contain things that if we were to come in close contact with them, they would make us sick.  Thus, over time the human body genetic map has learned that some things are good for us (like the color blue) and other things are not (like the color yellow).  Thus, when you are disgusted by something it is because your brain is trying to protect you by keeping yourself away from it.

Think of holding a dirty diaper or bag of garbage.  You hold it out at arm’s length or with your head turned to keep it as far away from you as possible.  That’s a good thing, the stuff in there is unhealthy; you should be repulsed by it because your limbic system, in your brain, is trying to protect you from disease.  You are supposed to be grossed out by things because if you weren’t, you wouldn’t pay as close attention to it as you should and you could lower your life span.

Thus, if someone makes fun of you by being grossed out by things that most people find disgusting, as if to suggest that you are emotionally weak, you have a defense.  In fact, it is they that are the weaker member of that conversation because they are the oddity in the human species that is not making use of the natural defense mechanism that we all have built in.

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The other day, a friend was over at my place and borrowed my computer.  He commented “Wow, do you have a lot of windows open!”  By windows, he meant programs.  I glanced over “Mmm…” I replied, “that’s not as many as I usually have open.”  But he’s not the first person to comment on that.

Right now on my laptop, I have 16 windows open.  On my PC at work, I have 19.  But I frequently have more than that.  On the laptop, here’s what is running:

  • Microsoft Communicator (chat), 13 conversations
  • Internet Explorer
  • Firefox
  • Notepad
  • Product Studio (for editing software bugs)
  • Microsoft Word (5 windows)
  • Windows Explorer
  • Windows Live Writer (for blogging)
  • RegexBuddy (tool for writing regular expressions)
  • System monitor (so I can shut down programs when they crash… which is frequently)
  • Calculator
  • Excel (4 windows)
  • Command prompt
  • Bugger (for tracking bugs)
  • Thunderbird (various email accounts)
  • Outlook (various email accounts)

If that looks like a lot, consider that I am not even running Powerpoint, Putty (shell tool… which I should have open right now but don’t), Microsoft Project, Visio, the Vista snipping tool, EditPlus (script writing tool), or iTunes.

Whew.  That’s a lot.  I need a lot of RAM.

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The agony of defeat

There’s a fine line between being good and being great.  Indeed, what separates number 2 from number 1 is sometimes so small a margin that it seems flukey that number 1 is on top.  But yet, to be the best, you have to be great.

Here’s what I mean.  Last Thursday, I went miniature golfing with all of my co-workers as part of a morale event.  When it comes to mini-golf, I usually either play an average game or a pretty good game.  My general strategy is the following:

  1. On the first stroke, get as close as I can to the hole without bouncing too far away.  In other words, don’t the ball too hard.
  2. When finishing up the putt, it’s okay to miss so long as you are closer to the hole when you were before.
  3. So, my general strategy is to make it as easy for myself as I can to get par, and occasionally I will hit a good shot and get under-par.  Thus, the goal is to avoid bogeys by conservatively controlling the power of my shots.
  4. Luckily, I have a relatively accurate shot so I can make good shots relatively frequently.

This strategy tends to work well.  The problem is that it failed me last Thursday.  I shot a 4-under game of 53, but I have five bogeys.  Five!  It was horrible!  Normally I am quite accurate at hitting anything 5 feet or less, but I hit ringer after ringer after ringer (ie, where ball rolls around the rim of the hole but doesn’t fall in).  It was so frustrating.  A string of 4’s and I knew that I was going to have a hard time delivering a good game.  Still, a 53 is pretty good.

It turns out that there were prizes for the best (lowest) score.  We all had teams of four so all of our scores were added together.  And the result today?  My team came in second place… by one stroke.  And the prize for best individual score escaped me by two strokes.  That’s frustrating.

So you see, the margin of victory for our team was a single stroke.  That hurt considering how many bogeys and ringers I had.  And the two stroke loss also was painful.  I started off strong and struggled in the middle.  I should have been able to shoot a 50 or even a 49, but better luck next time.  When I’m a great mini-golfer.

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