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Archive for the ‘Hobbies’ Category

Yesterday while here in Paris, the wife and I checked out the Orsay Museum in Paris. It is composed primarily of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, which covers a time period from about the mid-1850’s to 1914 (right up to the start of the first World War).

I wanted to go to this museum because ever since I started learning about art, I discovered I kind of like (some types of) Impressionism.

For you see, after the invention of the camera in the 1800’s, artists suddenly found themselves in competition with photographers as to who could create the most realistic recreations of real things. Artists realize they couldn’t beat photographers because the turnaround time between a painting and photograph was so disproportionally in favor of the photograph. So, artists realize they had to evolve.

And evolve they did.

They started(ish) with Impressionism. Impressionism takes a real scene and rather than painting a replica, it capture the essence or an impression of the original.

Some are more definitive like this:

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Others are a bit more abstract like this:

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And others yet are even more Impressionist, like these:

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And below is one of Monet’s more famous paintings:

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You can still see what’s there and what’s supposed to be drawn, yet these are clearly not exact recreations of the original subject matter.

That’s what I like about Impressionism, it’s not making me think too hard which a lot of later modern styles do.

I’ve thought a lot about the mural on our wall at home (I can’t find the link at the moment, but it’s here somewhere on this blog) and I think it’s a mixture of Romanticism and Impressionism. So, even back then when I had no idea about art, it still kind of spoke to me.

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And there’s this picture I also found in the Orsay. I have no idea what this is all about.

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Each year the wife and I try to give a certain amount of money to various charities. In each of the past five years I have managed to give more than the previous year. As it stands now in 2016 we are way behind but hopefully we will catch up in the remaining four months; the reason we are behind is because we have been throwing so much extra money at the mortgage on my place. Truth be told, I may not hit my goal this year.

Anyhow, I spread my money around with a lot of different charitable organizations based upon my perception of their need, and if I am interested in what they are doing.

The problem is that these charities don’t keep my information private. Somehow, they leak their information to other charities because I get lots of advertisements in the mail asking for money. These places guess – correctly – that if you give to one place you’ll probably give to another. While that’s true in my case that I am more likely to give to another, I have never given any money to a charity that has contacted me via mail for the first time. In fact, if I could figure out who selling my information, I’d stop giving them money. I basically just toss all their requests for money unopened into the recycling.

For example, I gave money to the National Parks and they send me stuff every month. They gave me a membership card that gives me absolutely zero benefits – it doesn’t even get me into the parks even though I gave them $500! It’s just a card that says “I’m a member.” I get this about once a month, along with a request for more money. I remember the first time I got it, I read through the benefits. After scanning it for five minutes I said “Wait, so this doesn’t get me into the parks? Then why are you sending this to me!”

Furthermore, the past couple of years I have given to a local organization that came to my attention because a friend worked there. In each of 2014 and 2015, I gave $1000. I guess that was a sizeable amount because in one of those years they phoned me up personally to thank me for it. The truth is that I set aside a certain amount of money each year to donate; I’m no hero, I took from my giving budget and gave to them.

Yet now they keep following up with me, emailing me to meet up in person, and sometimes calling me, too. I decline to take the calls and I don’t respond via email. The request is to meet up for coffee or something. I don’t respond because I am concerned they will try to get me to take on more responsibility for their organization, whereas I prefer to make myself feel good about myself by giving to a good cause. That’s all.

I’m thoroughly tempted to give out a fake address when I donate online, and even a fake phone number, and a disposable email address so I know who leaks my contact information. The fact is that there are a lot of worthwhile organizations out there, I only have so big a budget, and I am forced to pick and choose.

Your personalized return address stickers are very nice, but it’s okay, you can save the money from fundraising and instead direct it to actually doing what you say you do.

 

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Why study art?

A few weeks ago, for some reason I don’t fully understand, I started learning about European art history. My entire life I had zero previous interest in learning about the history of art. Sure, I enjoyed looking at images and I knew what I liked, but I couldn’t have cared less about the story behind it.

But then I read about a book about European history and art. I didn’t think I would care about the art part, but I did. In fact, I soaked it up like a sponge and I’ve been reading about it and watching YouTube videos (some on Khan Academy) a lot of the past few weeks.

I’ve noticed how my opinions have changed, even over the past few weeks. I used to not understand modern abstract art, and I thought it was stupid. Now I still don’t understand it but, but I no longer think it’s stupid.

So why study it at all?

I study it because it teaches me to be a good observer. Why do I like what I like? what details did the artist put into the picture? And why did he or she do it? Before, I couldn’t have told you. And I still can’t… not entirely, but I’m better than before. But by observing and paying attention to the details in a painting, it trains me to observe and pay attention to the details in real life.

Thus, I study art to get the context of a painting, as knowing the full context trains me to be a better observer.

Below is a picture entitled The Third of May, a painting by Francisco Goya of Spain, completed in 1814.

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You can see the original here.

Now, before when I was just looking at the painting, I’d say “Hmm, well that seems interesting” and gaze at it for 10-15 seconds and then move on. But no more. What do I notice now?

(Before I continue, I am cheating. This is one of the paintings they analyze on Khan Academy so I am remembering this off the top of my head).

First, it’s important to understand the context. During the Napoleonic era, France had invaded Spain. Some Spanish rebels led a resistance and the next day, the French military put down the revolt. This painting commemorates that, and it is the time period in which the painting takes place. It takes place on May 3, one day after the rebellion.

The next thing I notice is the structure of the painting itself:

  • It’s painted with depth. Prior to the Renaissance, paintings were “flat”, that is, in two dimensional space.  You can go here for an example (I’m not putting the picture here because I don’t want to divert attention away from the focus of the above picture). By contrast, in this painting, we can see the town way off in the background in three-dimensional space, the artist is using a technique to give depth that was popularized during the Renaissance.

  • The soldiers on the right are depicted in the shadows while the victims being executed on the left are in the light.

  • The victims on the left of the painting are also trapped in front of a hill. There’s no where for them to run.

  • The scene is depicted as taking place at night.

Next up is the social commentary that the artist is making:

  • The perpetrators in this scene are shown without their faces visible, a common motif in art to depict aggressors, a lot like this.

  • The look of fear is evident on the man whose arms are in the air. However, the artist is depicting him not as a victim in retaliation for leading or participating in a rebellion, but as an innocent victim – either he wasn’t involved or he was involved but the cause he was leading was a just one.

    How do we know?

    First, the man is dressed in white which is a another motif of innocence that is common in art.

    But second and more important, the man has his arms up in a pose that you would see on the image of Christ that you would see on crucifix. The theme in the Christian story is that Christ was an innocent sacrifice who was unjustly executed by an oppressive regime.

    And third, to cement the fact that Goya is drawing an exact parallel between the innocent Spanish resistance and that of the innocent Christ, if you look close-up on the palms of the man with his hands in the air you can see “holes” in the palms of his hands. This is similar to the image of Christ with holes in the palms of his hands on the crucifix.

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Thus, it is clear from the picture of the innocent man in the Christ-like pose that Goya is drawing a parallel between the Spanish resistance and the French putting it down, likening it to a justifiable movement where the ringleaders were sacrificed unfairly.

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

All of that analysis wouldn’t have been possible without learning about art history, and now whenever I see a picture I try to look at it and do a quick analysis (actually, it goes pretty slow because I have to consciously analyze it).

It’s my hope that learning about art gives me a more well rounded point of view and that what you see is often just scratching the surface of what’s really there.

 

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I like to read articles about time management and how to be more effective. I also read blog posts about people who have started businesses, and I regularly get marketed to by people who encourage me to start a business on the side to make more passive income.

For example, one of the things I hear is to get up earlier, perhaps an hour or two. The benefits of this are that I could get so much more done.

The problem with all of these time management promises is that they always promise me more time so that I can work more.

  • That is, I should get up earlier so that I can get more work done than I do now.

  • Or, I should start a business so that I can have more income and that will require me to work more.

I’m not anxious to work more. I don’t think I work as hard as I could, or possibly even should, but the bottom line is that I don’t want to work more. I like having the free time to do what I want to do. I like to read, or watch Netflix, or bug my cat, or spend time with the wife, or go out with friends, and so forth.

My job also has me working extra hours when I am on-call, and I check email at off-hours, too. The checking email doesn’t bother me, but being on-call does.

Working more with a side-job would decrease my quality of life unless I enjoyed the work and didn’t see it as work (I don’t even practice magic as much as I should because I find practice – after a short while – tedious). I’m at a point right now that adding more money doesn’t add much to my overall happiness (short of being able to fly business or first class). But really, I prefer to have the time over the extra money. And getting up earlier to work more, or working an extra side job, eats into my more valuable activity – wasting time doing unfruitful activities (that is, time that does not lead to earning money).

So while I agree that all these time management techniques are useful if you want to fill up all your time, I don’t think I want to fill up all my time. Those empty time slots are important.

I will never get them back. I don’t need to fill them working.

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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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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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Today the wife dragged me on my longest hike ever – 16.4 miles! My previous record was 15 miles (maybe a little more) in New Zealand last year when we went around the town of Marahau.

Yet this one didn’t seem so bad.  Even though it gained a lot of altitude – 4000 feet – it was spread out over 8 miles in one direction.  This means it was an average of 500 feet per mile, which isn’t too bad.  I thought I was going to die on this trip, but I didn’t.  I survived!  The downside is that now the wife will be able to use this as a precedent (“Oh, you did a super long hike before, we can do another one!”).

The wife got me out of bed at 5 am (!) and we left the house by 5:30.  We drove 2+ hours to Leavenworth and then after a couple of pit stops, we began hiking by around 8:30 am.  I got my GPS out and prepared to record the trip.

I’ve noticed something about my GPS, though.  It has a Track Calculator, and an Odometer.  The Odometer tracks your moving speed, time spent moving and time spent stopping, as well as the instantaneous altitude and the total distance you’ve traveled.  If you don’t reset it between trips, it keeps going.

The Track Calculator tracks your route on a map.  It also has an odometer.  Yet the Track Calculator’s odometer is always less than the Trip Odometer.  Sometimes it’s off by a significant margin.  I’m not sure why that is, it could be that the map it tracks is not totally accurate and therefore it cannot be the right readings.  Therefore, for these reports, I use the Trip Odometer because I reset both it and the Track Calculator before each trip.

Anyhow, here are the statistics:

Name of track: Windy Pass
Distance: 16.4 miles
Starting Elevation: 3360 feet
Highest Elevation: 7296 feet (3936 above start point)
Elevation Gained: 4600 feet (includes total of all up and down parts on track)

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In the altitude chart below, the hike starts off a little steep then flattens, gets a little steep and then flattens, but it never gets super steep the way it did last week.  There’s also a little bit of up-and-down, up-and-down, which is why the total elevation gain above is not simply the high point – the low point.

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As for some images from the trail, here are a few:

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It’s a tough slog on the way up.  Even at high altitudes, it’s warm.

We saw a bunch of wildlife on the trail, too.

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Hello, I am a Marmot.

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My name is Mr. Goat.

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I am a chipmunk.

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We finally got to the top, 8.2 miles later.  It was a tough slog and we were at a good altitude, but it wasn’t too bad.  The wife was so happy she decided to celebrate:

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I felt pretty good so I decided to click my heels together.  I think I got pretty good air in this picture:

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As good as it felt to get the to the top, it felt even better to get back to the bottom.  My legs and feet were sore when I was done, and so was my shoulder (from where the backpack with tons of water was digging into it).

As always, here’s a Google Earth screenshot along with a link to the Google Maps image (the trail does not show up in Google Maps).

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And that was the longest hike I ever took.

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