Back to real classes

I’m taking a Real Class again. I’ve taken a few Semi-Real Classes on edX over the past few years—learning about Python, Java, etc.—and have rolled through some classes on MIT’s OpenCourseWare. But those were low risk. Start a class, finish it if you want. Learn a bit along the way, sure. Pay the optional fee for some, just to keep the train rolling along for others. But it’s not the same quality as the classes I used to take while at school, nor do I expect it to be.

Now I’m enrolled in CS411 Database Systems at the University of Illinois. I’m in the tank with all these undergrads and grad students in a top 5 CS program. So it feels like something worth working hard for, and finishing, and doing well. And it has a Real Price Tag (which the company is picking up, thanks guys). But it’s fun to get in there and push it and try to keep up with a bunch of kids that are, I assume, a lot brighter than me.

I didn’t care much for CS when I was studying engineering a hundred years ago. I took one CS class during freshman year. Something something C programming. I went a few times—honestly I don’t remember going to lecture often (at all?), but I remember going to lab classes. And that was it. Probably got a C in that class. Didn’t see any future for myself in any kind of programming work. Which was a casually idiotic thing to think. I was a disaster as a freshman.

Now I’m also applying to go back to Illinois and take the online CS masters degree program. After about five years of writing code as tools for what is a largely untechnical job, it seems to me to be a good way to make a change. But first: the first class.

Hunter Thompson at 79

Hunter S. Thompson, dead today in 2005.

A myth. June 24, 2010. I went to the Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, Massachusetts to get Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But it was checked out. Stay on topic. Look for other books by Hunter Thompson. What do we have here? The Rum Diary. A book of letters. Fear & Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist. Is there a market for letters? Do people read this sort of thing?

It doesn’t matter. It was thick but I picked it up. And read it twice.

I didn’t know much about Doktor Thompson at the time. I knew there was a movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I knew it was about drugs. Right? Close enough.

The book of letters was surprising because they appeared to be the output of Serious Thinking. Often abusive, sometimes arbitrary, but almost always the result of some kind of intelligent being. I’m afraid that sounds like some kind of weak praise. But here we are. It’s not what I anticipated.

Imagine working for a large corporation, bathed in fluorescent lights and packed in gray cubicle walls. And trying somewhat desperately to fit in because… that’s what you do. Right? Go Along to Get Along. And then unwittingly you pick up this book that tears off the top of your head like a bottle opener tearing into a cap. I turned into a bit of a pit bull after that. I don’t think all of the results were good, but some of them were. Overall I don’t regret it.

I’m glad I didn’t find Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas first. I wouldn’t have taken the good doktor seriously. It would have been just another screwaround. But dig into the letters—Fear and Loathing in America, which is volume 2, and then The Proud Highway, volume 1—and it makes sense. Plus Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72. Plus the collection of journalism, The Great Shark Hunt. Plus Hell’s Angels. That’s a better way to approach it.

And then go for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It makes more sense. Approached later in the cycle, it seems more like an epitaph of a generation and less like a big haha party.

We can find inspiration in strange places. What does an engineer need with HST? I don’t know. Start with lies and end with truths. Package fact as fiction and fiction as fact. You can describe a thing from the outside or you can dive in and explain how the thing works as you interfere with it. Taste success and become fat and lazy and useless. Not all the lessons learned are how to; some are how not to.

There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.

I am the battery giant

When I want to translate something from English to Chinese, I put in the time cross-referencing the translation to avoid making any embarrassing mistakes. Today I was going out to help one of my wife’s friends replace the battery in her 2007 Prius. In a hurry, while she was on the phone, I tossed “I am the battery master” into Google Translate. GT came up with 我是电池主人 (Wǒ shì diànchí zhǔrén). In a hurry, I used it 100% without checking it off Pleco or MDBG as I normally would.

A swing and a miss.

电池 is battery. No question there. 主人 is master or owner, but it came out as 巨人 (jùrén) instead of 主人 (zhǔrén). 巨人 is… giant. I am the battery giant. [sad trombone]

Not that 主人 is even the best. Maybe 专家 (zhuānjiā) instead.

Anyway. I don’t own a Prius, so I found these two resources were the best for figuring out what I was doing before heading out to the garage (PROTIP: the battery is in the back):

The best businesses come out of frustration

From NPR’s How I Built This podcast…

GUY RAZ: When you’re thinking about starting a business, where do the ideas come from?

RICHARD BRANSON: As I’ve said, I think the best businesses come out of frustration. If you have a bad experience with another business somewhere in your life, you think, “Screw it, we can do it better than this.” Even if you don’t know much about it, just do it, get in there. Many years ago I wanted to invest some money and somebody gave me a bit of paper, and at the bottom of the bit of paper it said, “Bid offer spread 5%.” So I happened to say, “What does that mean?” And he said, “That means we take 5% of your money before we start investing it. I thought, “Screw this, I’m going to set up our own bank.” And we’ll make sure there isn’t any jargon like that to hide the real charges. We’ll be a very transparent, a very open bank. Virgin Money is now the prime challenger bank in Britain. And I didn’t know… My experience with banks was bank managers coming and banging on my door and trying to put us out of business. So I didn’t know a lot about it, but I’ve found people who know a lot about it to run it, and left them get on with it.

Innovation, or You know what I’m really sick of?

JERRY SEINFELD: You know, it’s very important to know what you don’t like. It’s good to have an idea, but a big part, I find, of a lot of innovation starts with someone saying, you know what I’m really sick of? That’s where innovation begins.

—HBR IdeaCast, “Starting and Stopping with Success“, 2017-01-19

That’s usually where I start when it comes to writing software at work. You know what I’m really sick of? Doing something in a database by hand that can be done by software—write a DXL script for it. You know what I’m really sick of? Formatting a spreadsheet the same way every time I need to hand in a report—write a VBA script for it. And so on. That’s the easy stuff. Small scale innovation. Sometimes I close my eyes and think of career design instead of script design. You know what I’m really sick of?

Eggnog 2016

When I saw the phrase “30-day eggnog” show up in my RSS feed, I knew right away that I had to try it. It was too weird of a concept to let it pass by. Michael Ruhlman: “Plan ahead: 30-day eggnog“.

I’ve never made eggnog before. Growing up, we just bought it at the store. I knew eggnog proper had some alcohol in it, but I assumed it was mostly eggs and milk with just a little bit of alcohol. Wrong. Flip that equation around.

So, while the eggnog is aging in the refrigerator—either mellowing into a more complex flavor or preparing to kill me—here’s how I set it up. The recipe is 75% of the one on Michael Ruhlman’s site because I only wanted to buy a 750 mL bottle of bourbon.

  • 9 egg yolks
  • 1.5 cups granulated sugar
  • 750 mL bourbon
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream (I think I just used a full cup because that was the size of the container)
  • 2/3 cup brandy
  • 3/8 cup Myers’s dark rum
  • pinch of kosher salt

Outcome: TBD 26 Dec: excellent

To have a giant’s strength

I came across this passage at the very end of Hawaii’s Story by Liliʻuolkalani (scanned copy on Google Books). It’s from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Act 2, Scene 2:


So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he, that suffer’s. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Preparing for Hawaii

(Go ahead and get in the mood: Hawaiian Radio on Pandora)

In January I’m taking a trip to Hawaii with Chen and her parents. We’ll only be there for eight days, and we’ll spend most of our time on Maui and Hawaii. I’ve never been there, never paid much attention to it.

So: I’m learning about Hawaii.

Eight days isn’t long enough to understand anything about a place, sure. My challenge is to spend the next two months learning about Hawaii—Hawaii Hawaii—so that I’m prepared when I get there to see and taste and hear things that I might have missed otherwise. Food, music, books, sights. My ideal of how to take a trip is super pretentious—so what? I’ll go to the sites that everyone goes to—those are also fun. But I really enjoy the kind of preparation of getting to know about a place. It’s like preparing for an athletic event. The payoff is both in the work and in the performance. I think there’s something wrong with me.

There are a few angles I’m taking on this. One is the Hawaiian language. Another is studying maps. And finding books. And music. And small companies that only exist in Hawaii that I’ll never see again after I leave.

I’m taking notes: /travel/hawaii. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment or send me an email.

Here are some ideas I’ve collected so far:


I’m biased towards: books I can get from the library; out-of-copyright books I can get via Google Books; used books I can get for less than $1 on Amazon.

I’ve already picked up the ones below. I’ll make notes about others on /travel/hawaii#books



Aloha. Mahalo. That’s all I’ve got so far.

Hawaiian Public Radio (@wearehpr) posts a Hawaiian word of the day on Twitter (#HWOTD).

My recurring nightmare

I’m 35—10 years since finishing my masters degree at Illinois. I’ll still have this dream every month or two that it’s finals week, and there’s a final in a class that I’ve forgotten to attend and forgotten to drop by the deadline. The dream never resolves. Take the exam and fail? Withdraw from the class? How does it end? Thanks College of Engineering for triggering tonight’s hellride.

Three things: 2016-W31

1. Now reading

Started: Discrete Mathematics with Applications by Susanna Epp. Nerd alert. After ten years in the Industry, I’m trying to recast myself as a software-knowledgeable person. And since code isn’t that hard really, I’m trying to learn some of the math that goes into it. All things I coulda shoulda picked up in college.

Started: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart–audiobook, read by the author.

2. Three Chinese words

  • 记得 – jìde – to remember
  • – chāo – to make a copy
  • 不管 – bùguǎn – no matter what, regardless of

Picked up while trying to follow 今晚80后脱口秀 (2016-07-28).

3. Agent-Based Modeling

The Santa Fe Institute’s online Introduction to Agent-Based Modeling course started. Not sure if I’m going to follow through on this one, but I’ve signed up for now.