Thursday, August 17, 2017

Bitcoin

I've already been wrong on bitcoin. I knew about it way before the majority of people. I first heard of it on the Security Now Podcast. This was when bitcoin was trading at a couple cents maybe and there was even a website called the bitcoin fountain where entire bitcoins were given away free in order to promote the currency. I remember being so enamored with the technology behind the concurrency and how the day after I went on and on explaining how it worked to my coworkers. At the time I didn't think it would ever really be widely known about and I certainly had no clue that the price of it would be as high as it is today.

I remember reading in Sapiens that the concept of money is inter-subjective. Inter-subjective means that it doesn't objectively exist, however the belief of enough of us causes it to be real. Law, god, corporations and nations are other inter-subjective concepts. It doesn't matter if I decide that none of these exist or if I die. However, if enough people change their mind then the inter-subjective concept can change or disappear.

This is the same concept as bitcoin (or any currency for that matter). In order for it to have value, enough people have to believe it has value. I not only have to believe bitcoin has value, I have to have faith that (enough) other people will also believe.

Today my Dad handed me an article talking about how the bitcoin technology (the block-chain - not actual bitcoin) was being used by large financial companies to record transactions. One of them even allowed their employees to use it in their cafeteria. The other day I heard a friend who is not technically savvy talk about how she wanted to invest in bitcoin. There are plenty of exchanges and payment services available for bitcoin. All signs to the level of inter-subjective trust that bitcoin has built up. I think its amazing that this subjective "idea" didn't exist one day but now it has concrete value since enough people are convinced.

I'm certain that it won't be replacing the dollar ever because it does have some downsides such as computer keys being hacked and some level of technical skill to get setup (although there are many services abstracting this away slowly) but I'd guess that it is here to stay for the long haul as some sort of alternative currency.

Most of the people I know are buying it and hoping for appreciation versus spending it. I think it will take a while for it to stabilize. Until then most people will probably just be holding on to their bitcoins. An unstable currency isn't great for use but great for speculation. I think we'll see a lot more bitcoin use and adoption as time goes by.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Learning Mandarin

Lets take a quick look at Chinese (Mandarin) grammar.

From Tim Ferris' blog post on how to master a language in an hour, I've laid out translations of his sample sentences. The purpose of it is to quickly gain insight into the grammar and sentence structure. 

The apple is red.
苹果是红色的

It is John’s apple.
这是John的苹果

I give John the apple.
我把苹果给John

We give him the apple.
我们把苹果给他

He gives it to John.
他把它给了John

She gives it to him.
她把它给了他
I must give it to him.
我必须把它交给他

I want to give it to her.
我想把它给她

It's easy to see that Chinese grammar is very simple compared to other languages. There is no conjugation of verbs like in Spanish. The word "Give" (给) is the exact same in each of the sentences. Only the person changes from I(我), We (我们), He (他), She (她). Every sentence has the same pattern. People often hear that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. It only is considered hard since reading and writing is considered. To get to basic conversation however, Chinese is relatively simple.

Ok, the above is just to get a taste of the language and "learn" the language in an hour. But my goal is to become fluent. Before I started I took some time to scan for the best techniques and methods for learning Mandarin quickly. Here is what I found is working for me.

Anki Flashcards - Anki works on PC and mobile phone. It basically is digital flashcards. It uses a spaced repetition technique so that you will see words that you don't know frequently and words that you have learned less frequently.

Pleco Chinese dictionary - works on your mobile phone. This is an absolute must because it has an overlay feature (it was a $10 add-on) where I can be surfing the web and tap on any word and it will tell me the meaning of the word. Pleco integrates with Anki where I can hit a button to automatically add that word as a flashcard in Anki. Pleco also seems to have the best character recognition so when I see a character in a movie or on a sign and try to write it, it usually is able to bring up the right character even though my writing is very sloppy. The Chinese google keyboard doesn't seem to be as consistent for me; probably because my stroke order is incorrect.

Du Chinese - a mobile app to practice reading. This is an amazingly well written app. I really like it because of the quick feedback. If I don't know a word I can click on it to see its meaning and get it read out to me as well as save unknown words to my word list. Since each reading is recorded by a native speaker instead of text-to-speech, it sounds very smooth. Also as a plus the stories and articles are fun and give good insight into Chinese news and culture.

Media that I'm interested in - language learning shouldn't be rote and boring. It is essential that you look for media that you find interesting or you might lose interest very quickly. I pretty much use YouTube to find TV shows and songs that I like. The best have both English and Chinese subtitles but some of them are just Chinese and in that case I pause after each scene to look up the words using Pleco. 

Practice speaking - I've made a rule to only talk to my family and friends (who are capable of speaking Mandarin) in Mandarin only. At first its awkward but try anyway. The people who learn the quickest are the ones who are the most willing to go with it and look foolish. If I don't know a word I'll use Chinglesh at the very least and keep a note to look it up later or ask them. If you don't have anyone to practice speaking with I've heard that actually speaking with yourself works really well. There's also an app called HelloTalk to find people to talk to. It was ok but I find it difficult to find the right partner because the Chinese always want to talk in English while you want to learn Chinese. You'd need to set up a system to either take turns or each person respond in both languages. But there are a lot more Chinese wanting to learn English than English speakers wanting to learn Chinese so it is easy to find people who want to chat. 

Immersion - so far for me this has meant turning my phone and laptop language settings to Mandarin. This can be a bit frustrating at first because a popup will come up and it will take a while to look up what it is asking. In the end it pushes you to learn quickly due to necessity. It reminds me of myself not really speaking Spanish despite 4 years of high school classes. But my trip to South America forced me into speaking it and at the end I felt good enough to get by. I have a trip planned for later this month to China so I'll be fully immersed soon!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A New Goal

Although my last post here was back in January, it doesn't mean I haven't been writing. I did go on a 3 month backpacking trip through South East Asia and kept a blog about it. However during that time I've neglected this one a bit. When I got back I kept thinking of picking this one back up again but its so true that its hard to overcome momentum (of not writing). Also, I don't help myself by thinking that I have to write some grand piece each time. I admire Derek Sivers (sivers.org) as he can write something so short yet profound.

I'm mainly focused on learning Mandarin for when I leave once again in a month for a trip to China. Although I am ABC, I never really focused on the language. I really regret this. I spent my Saturday Chinese school messing around and only really caring about the after school sports. My parents tried to help with tutoring but without a social group that mainly spoke mandarin and without much desire, I really didn't get much practice.

Now that I am older and more well traveled, I realize what a mistake that was. I'm missing out on opportunities to learn and connect to people of a different culture (and technically my own). The second best time to plant a tree is now though so here I go. I'm putting in a lot of effort now to improve my Mandarin but also will treat this as a infinite game which means that I'm not going to just treat this as a couple month project to learn and improve but to incorporate this into my life forever. Its actually significantly easier for me since I'm not starting from scratch. I've been passively learning over many years; its all in my subconscious somewhere waiting to be found. I've made so much progress in a month already. I'll be happy to share some of my tips and experience learning in future posts!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Motivation or Action

Does motivation lead to action or does action lead to motivation? Which one is the tail and which one is the dog? Its a bit of both. Motivation can (but is not required to) spark action. But many times motivation only causes me to be motivated and I end up not doing anything about it. Action on the other hand sparks motivation. This seems counter intuitive but I have found that the more effort and real action that I put into something, the more motivation I have. Maybe Newton's law has something to say about this as something already in motion takes less effort to keep in motion. Cal Newport's research in So Good They Can't Ignore You has found many examples of this as well.

This has some great implications. If you are feeling extremely motivated, its important to use it wisely. Realize that it means nothing unless it sparks action. I'd recommend channeling that motivation to do 1 thing. You just want to get motion, get action going.

On the flip side if you are not feeling any motivation (like for myself I've been wanting to write a book for the longest time), try to get yourself to start somewhere. Just take some action. Maybe try to lower the barrier to entry with a "shitty first draft" or get some brainstorming onto paper. Just start. Starting is actually a very difficult skill both personally and organizationally. I believe Seth Godin when he says that it is one of the most valuable skills for success.

I'm proud to have achieved some level of success in starting and continuing to write in this blog even though I'm only sometimes motivated to do so. I've managed to get into a habit of exercise by putting X's onto a shared Google doc with friends. I've manged to make significant long term changes to my diet.

My next step is to apply the same to starting a business. Even though I'd say the stakes are lower than those above, this one seems harder. Probably because its so mysterious and new to me. But I'm going to proceed forward in the only way I know how. By putting one foot in front of the other over and over again, however small (or large) those steps are.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Have the Right Gear

When I was In Malaysia ready to climb Mount Kinabalu I was prepared with my Northface shoes and  moisture wicking tshirt that I purchased from REI right before the trip. I noticed however that the porters who were able to sprint up and down the mountain used plain old leather shoes that seemed to be hand made locally with no grip on them and definitely no Gortex.

A similar incident happened during a trek to Machu Picchu. Most of the group that I was in had on all the trekking gear; Northface, Patagonia, etc. Waterproof this and that. Special hiking pants and trail running or hiking boots. But one of the guys, who I eventually became very close friends with, said that he didn't plan to do a trek in Peru before he came. All he had was his normal street clothes but he decided to tag along anyway. It was funny because he was a strong runner and in great shape so he barely broke a sweat along the entire route. Everyone else was in full hiking gear and struggling while he was in a plain sweatshirt and jeans. We joked that he looked like he was taking a regular stroll.

My point in these two events is that the gear means very little. We have to remember that activity specific clothing is highly marketing and in both cases it was unnecessary. In either case, looking back I could have tackled both mountains with regular walking or running shoes, a pair of gym shorts and any t-shirt (cotton or not). It really wouldn't have made much difference at all in terms of performance or comfort. Financially I would be better off because I wouldn't have had to purchase any extra gear. Especially trek specific clothing that I use less than 1% of the time. I could just use my 99+% use regular clothes. Now obviously you have to use your brain here, there are certain cases where it is just dangerous the be caught out with the wrong  gear or where specific gear is an absolute requirement. In many cases the product does add some level of improvement. But I think in a lot of cases someone is trying to sell you something and we confuse optional with necessity

Friday, January 20, 2017

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

About 8 years ago, I discovered Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance when I did a search for "Best software engineering books". Its not a typical software engineering book. In fact it is categorized as a philosophy book. But because it is NOT a software engineering book it allows us engineers to think of our work deeply in general and deconstruct some of the basic principals. I was just re-reading the book and I feel like I've learned so much more the second time around. I think its because the book is filled less with facts but more with questions and since I've added a lot of experience since I've last read it, I'll be able to think a bit more deeply on these topics, and thus the reading experience seemed completely different. Here's some of my notes
  • Don't ask "what's new?" Instead ask "what is best?". The latter cuts deep while the former is broad. (I have a note to test this out more. Regardless I want replace the "whats up/whats going on" question for something better)
  • Physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. When you are having fun you rarely notice how bad the weather is. But once you are in a bad mood, then everything about the weather sucks. The weather was the effect not the cause
  • Signs of possible poor work
    • listening to music - You can't think hard about what you are doing and listen to the radio at the same time. 
    • Going fast - When you want to hurry that means you no longer care about it and want to get onto other things.
    • Being detached from the job. Not caring. Cutting off at 5pm
  • "It was the attitude that found it, nothing else". Pirsig is talking about finding the issue with a motorcycle through careful testing and contemplation. I think this is brilliant think back that the hard software bugs that I have found were more due to my attitude
  • Some things you miss because they are so huge. We were seeing,looking at the same things but from a completely different dimension
  • Motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. People tend to think and feel exclusively in one mode or the other and in doing so tend to misunderstand and underestimate what the other mode is about
  • We can't remember every detail or else our mind would be too cluttered to think. We take a handful of sand from the endless awareness and call it the world
  • The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself. (Don't program when anxious, frustrated, angry, etc.)
  • The only real learning results from hang-ups, where instead of expanding the branches of what you already know, you hve to stop and drift laterally for a while until you come across something that allows you to expand the roots of what you already know. An example is Newton expanding reason to account for instant rates of change.
  • Remove the degrees and grading system and you get real education. After removing grades it turns out that the more serious students were the least desirous of them. The more lazy ones wanted the grades because it told them if they were getting by. Grades cover up a failure to teach. When removed people have to question what is really being taught.
  • Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible. The reality of your own nature should dictate the speed. If you get bored, speed up. If you get tired, slow down. Then each footstep isn't just a means to an end but an event in itself. The middle of the mountain sustains life, not the top. (This remind me of a Sivers article)
  • Ego goals are destructive. Victories are hollow, you will need to prove yourself over and over again. The ego climber rejects here, wants to be there. Gets there and is unhappy with it. He just wants to be further up the trail.
  • Your mind gets stuck when you try to do too many things at once such as writing what to say and also what to say first at the same time. Try splitting this out by brainstorming
  • Stuckness should not be avoided. It's a predecessor to all real understanding. Egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to understanding Quality.
  • If you’re going to repair a motorcycle an adequate supply of "gumption" is the first and most important tool. The thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.
There's also so much deep discussion on Quality and what it is and why it cannot be defined. Its funny because even at work we were having a discussion with management as the engineers felt we were sacrificing quality and then it led into a discussion on what quality was.