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Archive for August, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, the wife and I paid for a tree trimmer to come in a prune away some of the crazy branches of the trees in the yard. We did this for three reasons:

  1. We don’t know what we’re doing. There’s an art and science to pruning trees and if you do it wrong, you end up damaging the tree, and you could end up with a bunch of little green sprouts grow in the branch’s place which makes it even harder to maintain going forward. I’ve trimmed trees back in Canada and the next year it looked way worse.

  2. The amount of time required to pruning all the trees was more effort than I was willing to commit to in order to make it look good. You can do a half-effort job just to make it look okay. But the remaining 20% to make it look great requires just as much effort as the opening 80%. In other words, the incremental effort to make it look nice wasn’t worth the time investment relative to paying someone else to do it.

  3. We just didn’t want to do it ourselves and figured it be good to support the local economy.

So, the wife and I paid a reputable tree trimmer to come in and groom the place. Afterwards, the trees and bushes looked pretty good! The trees looked natural and not artificially cut which is the look we were going for. And, the branches were not wild and crazy either.

We were satisfied.

Unfortunately, to make a long story short, we had someone else volunteer – without our knowledge – to go ahead and prune the trees even more, even after we had them professionally trimmed.

The result, unfortunately, was that the bushes in the back and front were cut down, but it didn’t look good. We were left with 6” – 12” stubs of bushes in front of the house and in the back yard. It looked ma ma hu hu. Neither the wife nor I liked it.

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That’s just the ones in the back yard.

For the entire week, I pondered how I was going to fix it. Should I have them uprooted? Or just cut them down?

Well, Saturday rolled around and I got a burst of motivation. I decided to cut them down all the way to the ground.

I got out the hacksaw, put on my hiking boots, went out to the front yard and proceeded to cut down the entire stubs from the front yard that were left there by our volunteer tree trimmer.

I went to the first set of stubs and started cutting. It was a lot of work, there were many stubs to remove. I made sure to cut them as close to the ground as possible otherwise little sprouts would start growing (they still might). I cut, and I cut, and I cut. Because of the density of the branches, I had to cut off one branch, then the other branch, and then the stump that those two branches left – three cuts for a single branch sticking up! I repeated for every single set of stubs.

I finished up the ones in the front yard, and the ones in the back yard, too. It took forever, and today my back muscles are sore. But, I managed to make them look pretty good:

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I think if you looked out the back yard, you’d have no idea there was ever another bush growing in front of that tree. The front yard definitely looks better although it isn’t as clean as the front. But it still looks way better.

I can see why people might enjoy gardening. After I completed the work I took great pride in making what previously looked careless now looked manicured, which means it required effort. I took something that was disordered and made it look deliberate. It wasn’t that difficult (in terms of learning about aesthetics the way art takes real effort to learn what is good and what isn’t), but it was a lot of work.

On the other hand, it was a little depressing with the realization that everything will eventually grow back and I’ll be stuck in a cycle of continuous maintenance to keep it looking good. There’s no end, it just keeps going until the next time I have to do it – so it’s kind of like exercising or brushing your teeth, I guess. Whereas when I had the mural painted, it’s a project that comes to an end; or, when I learn and perform a new magic trick, it comes to an end. Not so with yard maintenance. There’s no end to it unless you pay someone to keep it looking good.

But anyhow, at least for the next week or so, I am satisfied with my work.

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Yesterday, I was at a family gathering where all the relatives were of Taiwanese descent and I was the lone white person. While there, I got into a conversation wherein we were discussing how China has a very rich food history. There was the peasants and the elite, and the elite worked very hard to combine many different types of ingredients, and that they will eat way more types of food.

For example, us white people would normally never eat the tongue of a cow, nor the tail. It’s just not something that we typically eat. However, the Chinese have spent thousands of years perfecting cooking and will experiment with many different ways to mix ingredients.

Which is the complete opposite of Europe.

The only culture that has a history of cooking is the French. I pointed out “What about Italy?” Well, pizza was invented in the US, and noodles come from China. I then did a quick mental tour around Europe and had to conclude that the other converser was right – Europe doesn’t have a rich food culture other than France.

I thought back to my own upbringing, German. What do Germans traditionally eat? It’s hearty food like sausages, potatoes, sauerkraut, and beer. Growing up, I didn’t like sauerkraut (my family rarely had it anyhow), and we never had beer. We did have lots of potatoes (which today I find bland), though. We only sometimes had sausage (summer sausage being a notable exception). Hot dogs don’t count because those are mostly fillers from other meat products.

I thought about my food culture growing up. We had our fair share of processed food (but also fresh vegetables from the garden), but in North America food is mostly about manufacturers trying to figure out how to get you to keep buying their stuff at a profit to them. To do this, they add sugar, salt, and fat to the product, distribute it to grocery stores, find out where they can trim inefficiencies in their businesses, and repeat. It’s not about a food culture, it’s about using food as fuel. It tastes good because our bodies like sugar, salt, and fat and with enough of it in your dish, you’ll buy it again. That’s the profit to manufacturers, and the convenience to shoppers.

Now that I’m older, I think twice about buying processed food. One reason that I like Blue Apron is that it has lots of fresh ingredients, and that I can make it up myself. But another reason is that processed food detracts from the experience of food. It’s just a company trying to fill you with calories, it’s not about the enjoyment of food.

Additionally, now that I’m older, I view food as one of the great experiences of life. Whereas I used to enjoy video games, and sporting events, and getting stuff, I now see enjoyable experiences as more preferable. And food is one of those things because it can be so complex if you’re willing to put in the time… or pay for others’ time to make it for you.

I think that’s a weakness of food replacement services like Soylent that give you a food substitute with all the calories you need in liquid form. To me, that’s a tragedy. Food is meant to be experienced, it’s not supposed to be merely a fuel.

Anyhow, that’s the advantage of being older. In my younger days, I couldn’t see what I was missing. But now that I’ve had those things, I enjoy the finer points in life.

And I’m only 36. Who knows what I’ll be enjoying 10 years from now?

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Recently, a couple of my friends started to have a lot of success in their careers performing magic. In 2014, Darcy Oake went on Britain’s Got Talent and came in fifth, launching his career into that of a traveling performer all around Canada and the UK. Another of my friends, Chris Funk, (who performs as a mentalist, just like me!) got onto Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, the episode of which airs on Tuesday. If he fools Penn and Teller, he gets to fly back to Vegas to open up their act. He hasn’t revealed if he’s won or not, but I suspect he did since he’s posted subsequent Facebook photos of performing in Vegas (where Penn and Teller are).

I got interested more seriously in magic when I was 15 or 16. And during that time I built up some of my skills. I used to spend a lot of time street performing where I really improved my skills. But over the past 5 years or so I haven’t done that much performing at all. I don’t practice as much as I used to, either.

Back when I was younger, I used to think I could be a professional magician and make lots of money if I practiced enough and got good enough. Yet here I am, years later, and watching my skills slowly drift downwards.

Why?

A few weeks ago, I read a post on the blogger’s site Financial Samurai entitled It’s virtually impossible to resist the allure of money. In it, he talks about how it’s hard to resist working at a high paying job when ahead of time you’d swore you’d instead deny yourself and change the world. For example, a college programmer might say “I’m going to go to Africa and help all the poor people learn computers, and I’d only get paid $20,000/year to do it. But I will deny my own comfort to advance humanity!”

But then, upon graduation and $50,000 in debt, the programmer is offered a high paying job at a leading tech firm. He rationalizes to himself “Okay, I’ll do this for a few years and pay down my debts. Then I’ll volunteer.”

Ten years later, he’s still working for a high paying tech firm.

The point Financial Samurai is making is that unless you’re rich, the allure of money is hard to resist when reality come a-knocking. We may say we have all these plans ahead of time, but reality has a way of getting us to change our mind.

If you don’t have money, you know what it can buy you (security) which you won’t have when you’re volunteering. After all, eventually you will need money – whether for family, for health care, or for pursuing your own interests. Indeed, while money doesn’t buy happiness, it does substantially improve your life the more of it you have (up to a point) to meet your basic needs.

People may say one thing (“I’m above the money!”), but our brains can do the math.

Financial Samurai’s point is that this is okay, too.

For me, in my younger days I was about the money. I used to want to be a lawyer or programmer because I knew those were high paying fields, and I was also interested in them. I used to want to have my own software company. When I got interested in magic, I used to want to be a super successful magician with my own show in Las Vegas or maybe New York City.

But yet I don’t.

Over the years, I’ve come to the glaring, ugly truth about myself – I am not entrepreneurially minded enough to do the things you need to do to succeed at your own business.

I’ve tried my hand at network marketing a few times and it didn’t go well. I couldn’t recruit anyone and didn’t want to annoy anyone by trying to recruit them. When I was trading stocks, I couldn’t discipline myself enough during down markets to not do stupid things. As a magician, I had the skills to perform (sort of) but not the skills to market myself. I didn’t want to have to build and manage a web site, make ads in a phone book, and relentlessly market my own abilities everywhere. I just wanted to perform magic, not build a business around magic.

This is why I never succeeded as a street performer (the hardest job I ever had). I couldn’t bark loudly enough at people to get them to watch my show and capture attention long enough. I should have created an all-silent act just like Teller but never did. Even today, I have trouble going up to people and saying “Want to see a trick?” Instead, I like to volunteer to perform when there’s a casting call for performers because then I know I have the audience captured and they can’t walk away; I can’t deal with the rejection.

I don’t market myself at work either, to my detriment.

So, building my own business is hard. But also for magic, I don’t practice enough. I used to do it a lot, but it’s faded a lot. If I really loved magic, I would practice more. Way more. The ugly truth is that… I like it but I don’t love it. Or maybe I would love it if I performed it more often? Or maybe I am going through a funk (note: I do still practice, just not enough to be a great performer).

But, the one thing I don’t have any problem motivating myself to do is program. I code things up all the time. That I love. If I ever want to automate something, I’ll sit down, open up a shell window and start writing some scripts to pull data and manipulate it.

I love that!

And I do it all the time, too. I do it at work, and I do it at home. I live to pull the data into Excel. That’s one thing I loved about stock trading, and that’s the experience of coding my own tools to do what I needed them to do. Trading stocks was one thing, but coding up the tools to give me the data I wanted was way better.

And because that fits my personality, it’s also something I do at work. I enjoy going into work many days because I get to use my skills at data analysis, and I am good at it. I find myself making progress all the time. And I get results. And I get to refine what I did.

And more importantly – I get paid well.

And I’m chasing that money, too. In order to make as much money performing magic as working at a tech firm, I’d have to have multiple shows per day or perform in a theater. But then I’d have to have a large team in place getting shows for me, and build an enter infrastructure around that.

My history shows I am not good at that.

But I am fantastic at fitting into an existing framework (my job) and making that better (building features) and getting results. And getting paid for those results on a predictable basis.

And I enjoy that a lot.

So I find myself looking back over my life and feeling like “Man, I am chasing the money… compared to what I said I’d like to do.” But at the same time, I feel like I should have gotten way better at magic and had successes like my friends have had.

But knowing where I excel – fitting into an existing structure – and where I don’t – self-promotion and sales – makes it a lot easier to rationalize why I took one path and not the other.

I am okay with that decision.

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Last week, I was at a conference for work where I had to give a presentation. I hadn’t prepared much for it yet still managed to get 4.75 stars out of 5, overall for the session (jointly delivered with another speaker). I thought that was pretty good.

Afterwards, my co-presenter, another co-worker, and I met up with another co-worker who is based on the east coast and was in town for this conference. We figured out immediately that he was an extrovert, very peppy and hyper. He was a chatterbox.

We hung around and chatted for a bit and then afterwards went for lunch in one of the large convention halls. On the way up, this guy was chatting away, talking about 80’s music and singing the lyrics to a couple of songs, and talking about video games. He was as hyper as my cat is when the wife comes home.

Anyhow, we headed to the lunch hall, got in line at the buffet tables, and got our food. I picked a combination of salads and a bit of meat, whereas the chatterbox just got mostly meat and a little bit of bread. I had more food than he did.

But at lunch, he continued chatting away. And afterwards, when I was done with my food, I had finished everything and went back for a bit more. The chatty guy had eaten maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of his plate. There was a lot still on there, it looked like he hadn’t touched it.

I thought to myself “Wow, I was really hungry. Weren’t you?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *


But, now that I think about it, I’ve seen this before. Way back in 2007, I went out to dinner with a bunch of people who were interested in Objectivism, the philosophy practiced by Ayn Rand. I had just moved to Seattle and wanted to meet new people, and this was a group within Microsoft.

We met up for dinner one night, and there was about 10 of us, and there was also a relatively newcomer to Microsoft, I’d estimate he was 23 or 24. While all of us were talking before and during dinner, he was the most chatty of all. He was arguing for his point of view quite fervently (which was anti-Objectivist), and while all of us were fairly subdued and interested, he just kept talking.

I remember we were at a pizza place and all of us ordered personal pizzas, including this chatterbox. All of us either finished or nearly finished our personal pizzas, and he had maybe 1/4 of his.

Just a quarter!

He had spent the entire time mostly talking away, trying to prove his point whereas the rest of us were just happy to meet up.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

But, also thinking of that, I also remember way back when I lived in Canada I had a friend who was a super chatterbox called “Yentil.” Yentil talked all the time. And he, too, didn’t eat.

We used to go to Thanksgiving dinner at church every year, and the food was served at the buffet tables. All of us would load up our plates. A group of us friends would sit together at our tables, Yentil among them.

And Yentil chatted the entire time during the meal, too. And at the end of the meal when the rest of us were done, Yentil’s full plate was maybe 1/3 to 1/2 done at most. He talked the whole meal, clearly distracted by the food on his plate.

And just like these other two instances… the energy of talking so much distracted him from being able to consume anything.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What is it about chatty people that prevents them from eating anything? They talk and talk and talk and don’t eat. Is it that they are nervous and therefore feel like they have to keep talking? And those nerves suppress appetite? When I get nervous (which is always before a magic show), I can’t eat either. My stomach won’t let me as I have almost no hunger whatsoever. But afterwards, I am quite hungry.

So, maybe these people are all nervous. They may not appear nervous outwardly but are experience tremendous anxiety inwardly. To deal with their anxiety, they talk. And the nerves suppress their hunger.

That’s my theory.

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This past year, I attended a “seminar” at work called Career Superpowers. In it, the speaker talked about being aware of where you were, and the circumstances of what led up to it, when you have great ideas and have flashes of inspiration. For him, he talked about how he has his best ideas while in the hot tub. He told the story of how his hot tub always broke down and, one day, he got so annoyed with he that wanted to get rid of it.

His daughter told him “But dad! You can’t get rid of it!”

“Why not?” he asked.

She said “How much does it cost to get it fixed each time it breaks down?”

“About $800.”

“You do all of your best thinking while you are in the hot tub. Aren’t your ideas worth more than $800?”

He agreed, and kept the hot tub. And he’s right. He’s aware of where he is (the hot tub) when he gets his best thinking done and told all of us to be aware of where we are, and what led up to it, when we have great ideas. And, we have to recreate those circumstances as much as possible to generate more of these ideas.

So what about me? Here are some times when I was inspired out of no where:

  1. The time I wrote a great blog post

    It was autumn 2014, I was at home and it was just after dinner. I had a good beer that night and got about writing a blot post for work. I got great feedback and consider it one of my finer works.

  2. The time I solved a problem for work while on-call in record time

    I was on-call last fall (autumn 2014), I was at home and it was 9 pm and the phone rang, like it usually does after hours while I am on-call. It was after dinner and I had a beer as well. I logged onto the network and solved the problem in 30 minutes, way faster than I had the day (or two days before).

  3. The time I had a great idea for work

    I had a great idea for an implementation of something for work which we are currently releasing. It really is an advanced breakthrough. It was a Sunday afternoon  this past March and I was having a massage. I was lying there on my stomach when all of a sudden I had a flash of insight. I ran through it in my head over and over again and we ended up doing it after I sold it to everybody.

  4. The time I had another great idea for work

    I can’t remember what this great idea was, but we’re doing it, too (my ideas are blurring together). I was at home, around 9 pm, and playing Candy Crush on my iPad. I had a beer that night, and the cat was on my lap purring. Suddenly, I had a great moment of inspiration and I rushed to write it down. We ended up doing that one at work, too.

  5. The time I had an idea for a German-themed brewery with an automated feedback mechanism

    This is an idea I am still fleshing out but friends I have told it to like it. For this one, I was on a hike with the wife out in the North Cascades and out of no where, this idea came to me. I managed to formulate it within two hours on the way back to the car.

  6. The time I had an idea for automating your eating menu

    Tonight, I was eating dinner, nearing the end, and we were talking about our Blue Apron delivery service, and how there was a new one that sources you food ideas from around the world. Suddenly, I had another flash of insight for how you could automate your weekly menu and use predictive analysis to build a profile of yourself.

As I was going through these, I thought to myself “Hmm, every one of these ideas occurs after I’ve had a beer.” But no, it’s not true. The latter ones occur when I’m doing physical activity, or just doing nothing.

But here’s what is true – all of my great ideas have occurred when my mind was not preoccupied with anything else, I was not working it hard. It’s pretty straight forward to hike, or play Candy Crush, or just eat dinner. Hiking is not relaxing, but it’s not mentally taxing (except for the drain of pushing myself to go another 5-6 miles).

Second, not a single one of my great ideas occurs while I am at work. That makes me stop and think. For sure, I do some great work while at work and I find myself productive on some days (that is, I have bursts of productivity and bursts of nothing getting done), but none of my great ideas in recent memory have occurred while at my day job.

Looks like my down time is where I do my best thinking.

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