Random Thoughts

Tech, words and musings from an Englishman in Seattle

Undo

A couple of weeks ago I left Facebook and returned to Google. I enjoyed working with the engineers there on fun and interesting stuff but for a number of reasons, mostly personal, I decided that the best place for me is Google. And here I am!

It's great to be back at Google - it's amazing how much can change when you're away for a even just a couple of months.

So what am I working on? Interestingly, this time I can actually talk about it! On rejoining Google, I had the chance to look around at a number of projects (there's lots of great stuff going on up here in Seattle/Kirkland), and I'm happy to say that I'm now working on Chrome and specifically on the video stack. It's going to be fun working on Open Source stuff as my day job!

So after a four year break, it's back to client-land for me!

I Am Not A Number!

Why had I not heard of this before!

The Prisoner, one of the best TV series of all time has been remade and starts a week from Sunday on AMC.

Sadly, I just noted that Patrick McGoohan, the original Number Six, died earlier this year.

As a kid, I visited Portmerion a number of times. I loved the series - I have various books and photo books, I've have had posters on the walls of my office (when I had an office…), etc…

I can't wait!

Be seeing you…

This Afternoon I Became An American

This afternoon Nabila and I went down to the local USCIS office in Seattle and became American citizens.

Wow!

After eleven years in the US, seven of them as a permanent resident, I'm finally there. Theoretically I could have become a citizen two years ago as you only have to wait five years as a permanent resident before you can apply for naturalization, but I just never got around to it.

Then last October, two things occurred to me:

  1. We have kids who are both US (and UK) citizens.
  2. An election is coming and dammit, I'm voting this time.

We cut it close.

The deadline for registration is October 4th by mail or online and October 20th in person, so this evening I registered to vote and for the first time, when asked “are you a US Citizen?”, I selected “YES”.

The oath ceremony was pretty nice, not what you'd expect when sat in a building with the words “Department of Homeland Security” written everywhere. We watched a few short videos (which included probably the nicest video I've seen that starred George W. Bush) and accepted our certificates of naturalization.

Probably the coolest thing was that from the 109 people that were there being naturalized, they represented 44 countries.

Anyhow, once we were done, we picked up the kids and I headed back to the office where I discovered that my co-workers had decorated my desk in honour of the occasion, and our resident Photoshop guru had created this as the centerpiece:

Rock on!

Sold! Closed!

You may remember that a few weeks ago I posted that our old house was on the market. Well, I hadn't posted on the subject since then as I didn't want to anger the real estate gods and their friend Murphy.

I think it's safe now.

When we put the house on the market, we stated that offers will be considered at 3pm on the following Monday, one week after we put it up for sale.

At 3pm that Monday we had eight offers, six of them way above the asking price and all with escalation clauses! Essentially, the sale of our house had become an Ebay style dutch auction.

We accepted a great offer - with no contingencies. Not even an inspection contingency.

Sweet!

Well, today it all closed and Nabila and I are happy campers :-)

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Six Years

Happy Anniversary, my love.

Now, can I buy that iPhone?

Slackers

The house is almost on the market. Yesterday we were supposed to have cleaners and window cleaners come round. Well, the cleaners sucked and the window cleaner bailed.

But we're getting there.

The house is now staged - just a few minor prep things to go. Anyhow, in preparation for the “official” photographer also sucking, I took a bunch of shots for the MLS listing, brochures, etc…

Moving House Cheat Sheet

As we've moved into the new house and have contractors about to finish up on the old place before it goes on the market, I thought I'd give all you “moving house wannabes” a glimpse at my mindmap cheatsheet.

It's a gem, I promise you.

Community

Tonight I feel like I live in a community more than ever before.

Up until last week I lived on 8th Street South in Kirkland, right next to the Little League baseball fields - the street is part of a Kirkland known as the Everest Neighbourhood.

Recently, longtime neighbours of ours, the Aubrey's, decided that it was time to downsize after living here since 1972 and raising their kids in their house on 8th. They applied to subdivide their land, but permission came with the stipulation that 5th Avenue South that connects 6th to 7th should be extended through to 8th - obliterating a footpath and lovely area of the neighbourhood in the process.

Not to mention the fact that commuter traffic generated by such a cut-through would destroy the quiet and kid-friendly street one block west.

You can read more about this at the Kirkland Courier's site and this map will show you what I'm talking about.

An appeal was lodged and tonight a quasi-legal hearing was held at Kirkland City Council. It was quasi-legal in the sense that the council members were effectively judges and jurors on the issue and were not allowed to hear any arguments about the case beforehand. Arguments would be presented for and against and entered into the record and most frustratingly, audience members had to be quiet and respectful - no clapping and no standing up and shouting “WTF!”.

You can understand that I was sitting on my hands and biting my tongue throughout the whole proceedings.

There were many empassioned arguments including one by a neighbour who had done some severe homework, turning the city's own planning policy against itself.

So many friends from the neighbourhood showed up. Many with kids. Everyone supporting the appeal. Did I mention that 7th Street has almost forty kids under ten years of age living on it? It's an old school neighbourhood with young parents; kids playing on the street side of their houses with other kids; neighbours chatting and doing favours for each other.

Community.

A community that would have been destroyed by a short-sighted, follow the rules, planning policy.

The end result? A unanimous vote by the council1 in favour of our neighbourhood.

Surrounded by neighbours, I have never felt so much a part of a community.

Rock on.

1 Incidentally, there is a certain council member who urgently requires that a bureaucratic stick be surgically removed from their arse. 

ATM Fraud And Me

On Saturday night I was doing the usual accounts and bill paying activity when I called up my checking account online. Sitting at the top was an ATM withdrawal for $502 from a Bank Of America ATM in Auburn.

Chills start to creep down my spine.

I continue looking.

There's another from Renton; another from Bothell; another from Seattle; etc… In total there were seven withdrawals, all from Bank Of America and all for $502.

WTF!

I called the card issuer and had the card cancelled. Then I started my research.

Since forever I've preferred using debit cards over credit cards as I don't have a bill to forget to pay and incur credit charges. I also thought that it's more secure. Anyone can capture my credit card data and fake my signature. A PIN based transaction has to be more secure, right? It's worked fine for me up until now.

The key piece I've missed is that, of course, VISA will protect you against fraudulent use (OK, so you pay the first $50). Well, in the case of fraudulent debit/ATM activity the bank is under no obligation to refund the charges. I'm assuming that most would though, as otherwise you'd have a bunch of very pissed off customers. Handily, my bank is one of the good ones.

So, how did they get my PIN?

I'm guessing that one of the few places that I actually perform PIN based transactions has screwed me.

I use it at maybe three places. I local convenience store and local supermarkets. One of them had to have a fake PIN pad that was capturing data.

Or maybe not.

Maybe some idiotic system at some company was capturing my PIN in violation of network agreements and then had a security screwup.

I may never know.

And why Bank Of America? I'm not with that bank - hence the $502. They obviously requested $500 and incurred a $2 transaction fee. Is Bank Of America an easy mark for ATM fraud?

And why didn't the super annoying AI speak up? You know, the AI that runs on all transactions to spot inconsistent activity and stops you from purchasing that last minute gift for your wife's birthday?

I have never taken anywhere close to $500 out of an ATM, let alone once a day for almost a week!

Anyhow, what I do want is for the assholes that nicked my hard earned moolah to be caught. In my shiny rose-tinted world, as soon as I reported the fraudulent activity, the ATM network would spring into action and when the aforementioned perps tried to use it again (probably yesterday as they'd be using it once a day since last week), the ATM would fire it's camera; ask them questions slowly; call plod and have the perps arrested by the time the card got spat back out.

Somehow I doubt it though.

On Sunday morning I visited the local plod to report the crime and get a case number for my bank, who I visited this morning. The nice policeman said that the ATM fraud rate has recently skyrocketed in this area.

Handily, the bank took the details and printed me a new ATM card with a new number there on the spot and said that the charges would be refunded within two or three days. When I asked them why the super annoying AI didn't catch this obviously bogus activity I was informed that it doesn't run for PIN based transactions! It only runs for signature based transactions!

Wow.

So, the key takeaway is to avoid using your PIN at all costs - go the VISA route and sign for your transaction, that way the super annoying AI will run and maybe save your ass.

Update: Props to my bank First Technology. They credited my account with the full amount of the fraud the day after I reported it.

“I don't want to believe. I want to know.”

Today is the 10th aniversary of Carl Sagan's death and I felt a need to add to the blog-a-thon that's going on around it.

Carl Sagan, to put it bluntly, was my introduction to the wonderment that is the universe. I remember watching Cosmos as a child and being awed by it.

Following that, I avidly devoured his writings which in turn led me to many other teachers such as Feynman.

I remember reading Contact at seventeen years of age and then, many years later, watching (in my opinion) the marvelous adaptation of it to the big screen.

To put it in cliché, Carl Sagan had a huge impact in my life.

Sail on, my friend.

Roundup

There have been some nice little mentions of my move by both of the Seattle PI reporters that I follow. John Cook devotes a post to my move, and Todd Bishop mentions my move in the same paragraph as Microsoft executive Rick Devenuti!

Regarding John's post, I've been so busy that I've not had a chance to get back to him - I've got that whole “need to collect thoughts before talking to a reporter” thing going on, even if there's not much to say. Like any decision it was all about evaluating the current situation, evaluating a great offer and integrating all factors, both personal and professional, to arrive at an answer. Oh, and the great food!

I hope that works for John as, like I've said before, I'm incredibly grateful to him for the exposure he has given SwitchGear.

In other news, Shel Israel, PR guru and co-author of Naked Conversations used one of my photos in a post of his about VC Rick Segal. That's a first and to be quite honest, an honour.

Ch…Ch…Ch…Changes - Moving To Google…

Yesterday was my first day at Google. I know, relatively minor compared to certain other Google related news, but quite important to yours truely :-)

This week I'm down in Mountain View, but I'll be based in the Kirkland office, a mere few minutes from my house…

Why? And what's going on with SwitchGear? That's a topic for another post… For now, I just wanted to let you all know what I'm up to. To say that I'm incredibly excited by the opportunity at Google would be an understatement…

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I want a new suit

In particular, I want a suit made by this gentleman.

Call this a weird (or maybe English) desire for a software developer that wears a suit probably bi-annually at best, but I actually do like wearing them - I can see a point in the near future where I may need to wear one a little bit more often than that.

And that's the point.

A decent suit is timeless and Tomas Mahon is obviously a fine craftsman and anything he makes will probably outlast me and still be in style.

So with a birthday coming up, I'd like one of these and a few of these, please.

Thanks.

Ouch!

Yesterday morning I got up, showered, walked back into the bedroom and slammed the little toe on my right foot into some very solid wood. I instantly knew that this was not the ordinary toe stub agony.

This was a new level of pain.

I collapsed onto the bed screaming like a newborn. And then the swelling started.

A quick trip to the doctor and an X-ray revealed that I had indeed broken my little toe. Of course, doctor's orders are that I put my feet up for the next three weeks… Well, she actually said to keep the foot elevated, ice it, and buddy tape it.

Broken Toe

This morning the whole area of the foot is going black and blue. Oh joy. At the moment I can't get a sock on the foot, so driving is going to be interesting…

Mars

It's always cool to see the planets in the sky at night, and with tonight's full moon and the brilliantly clear sky we can see Mars, dramatically shining just to the lower left of the Moon.

Now if I only had a camera that could capture it

More on the Digital SLR decision

A few days ago I posted a call for help regarding my upcoming purchase decision of a digital SLR.

It started out as a choice between the Canon EOS 20D and the Olympus E-500, and has now morphed into a decision between the Canon and the new Nikon D200.

Wow. Canon versus Nikon feels like Apple versus Microsoft!

Most people in the comments (by the way, thank you, thank you, thank you) favour the Canon, but in the grand scheme of things I think it comes down to personal preference and your history with either vendor. If you've got a lot of time and history (especially lenses) invested in a particular vendor, then you're much more likely to stick with them.

After reading the comments and cruising websites, it feels very much like a religious war, similar to the Microsoft versus anyone else debate.

Eye opening.

Anyhow, make of that what you will, but I think I'm going to be non-conformist and go with the Nikon D200. I went to the local camera store that I've done a lot of business with (I even bought one of the first digital cameras there back in 1996 - a Casio something-or-other that had a 320x240 resolution - no mega pixel there and no flash - it was useless) and had a long discussion with a Canon owning sales guy who was incredibly passionate about the topic.

He laid out all the facts and led me to the conclusion that the Nikon is better for me.

Respect. Cameras West in Bellevue. Highly recommended.

Digital SLR help needed

I'm looking at getting a Digital SLR, and am currently thinking about either the Canon EOS 20D, or the Olympus E-500. Here's a link to a side-by-side look at them over on Digital Photography Review.

My question is what do you guy's think? Is any reader an expert in this area?

The Omlypus is about half the price of the Canon and the features look comparable to me, but the Canon has a lot of favourable reviews and is now over a year old - is something better coming along? I hate buying expensive consumer electronics only to have it be out of date the day after I buy it…

Help!

Time For A Break

Here's a excerpt from some email I sent to the team earlier this week:

One of the wonderful things about Microsoft is that if you hang around for a while, it sneaks a surprise on you. A while ago I was given the opportunity to take a sabbatical, but up until this point schedules haven't aligned to enable me to take it, now they have. So starting next Monday I'll be playing way too much golf, getting around to doing all those chores around the house that I've been paying people too much money to do for me and doing some recreational coding.

I'll also be getting the nursery ready in anticipation of the arrival of our daughter.

I'll be oof from July 11th, though September 23rd. The aim is to rest up, but Jasmine should be arriving at the end of August, probably with the aim of annoying her brother mercilessly, so when I return I'll probably need another break ;-)

I'll not traveling, so should you need to contact me, feel free to call or just email me. I'll be checking email (almost) daily. That said, if you have any burning issues, you'll need to find me before the end of the week.

Cheers,

Steve

Ahh, vacation. And eleven weeks of it too. This is a great company.

That said, I'll actually probably spend most of it in front of my machine at home working on cool new stuff for FlightSim, but without the daily distractions of the work.

As my wonderful wife says: "You're too much of a forehead". I like that.

In other news, I got to order my new laptop today. I settled on the Toshiba Tecra M4 because it's a tablet and the GPU supports shader model 3.0.

That means I get to code in the Triple J Cafe. Oh, and it should please Scoble...

Ribs

This afternoon the dads are getting together at our place for a BBQ - the first using my new grill - a Father's Day present from my darling wife.

But those aren't the ribs I'm discussing here.

When I first got to the States, one of the first things I tried was snowboarding. Of course, the first thing I did was fall over and crack a rib. That took a month or so to get over. Then I did it again. And again. Then I gave up on snowboarding...

In 1999 I went sailing with some friends in Thailand - towards the end of the trip I was trimming (adjusting) the jib (big sail on front of boat), when the sheet (rope connected to the big sail at the front of the boat) got away from me. I stupidly held on and felt a very weird sensation in my chest - a sort of tearing. There was no pain so I though nothing of it.

A few days later we were sitting in the lounge at Bangkok airport when my whole chest went into spasm - I couldn't move or breathe - everyone thought I was having a heart attack. I get rushed over to the clinic (whilst United were thinking about unloading my bags - yikes!). They diagnosed a separated rib and gave me some nice muscle relaxant which (later on in the plane) went very nicely with the Jack Daniels.

Handily, my traveling companions Deb and Di had convinced United to wait for me, and upgrade me to business class!

I digress.

On Friday I went for dinner with some friends and when we arrived, I nipped into the bathroom. The door has a really heavy spring which I forgot about when leaving the loo. The door smashed into my chest, winding me completely and aggravating some old rib injury. Now it looks like I'm back in one of those month long rib recovery periods.

And I really wanted to play golf today...

Movie Review (and more): Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy

This evening Nabila and I went to see Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. To say this is a home coming for me is sort of an understatement in a "full-circle" kind of way. Before I get to the review, a bit of history is in order.

I grew up in the UK and was always a bit of a sci-fi fan, but also totally in love with the british "ironic" bent of humour. Think Monty Python, Yes Minister, etc...

The BBC TV production of HHGTTG was my first exposure to the saga, and I immediately went out and bought the books. At the time there was only HHGTTG and Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

I devoured them.

After reading the books, I was a bit disappointed that Restaurant was bascially given two episodes at the end of the BBC TV series (a mistake that the movie dosen't make by virtue of the fact that it doesn't include Restaurant at all), but I loved the TV adaptation anyhow. I then got to hear the original BBC radio series at school, in English class, because our English master was a cool guy who was into it also.

Fast forward a couple of years.

I'm in a physics class chatting to a friend of mine, Paul Marsden, and we get around to Hitch Hiker's. We're both massive fans. So we decide to put on a school play. Here's our plan: we'll each take on half of the original book and write the play. So that's what we do. It actually turns out quite good, but we then discover that an actual screenplay has been written and a movie is in pre-production (this is 1985 by the way).

So we write to the production team in that far off place called Hollywood, asking if they could send us a copy of the screenplay and whether they would mind if we used it to produce a school play. We didn't expect any response.

Lo and behold if we didn't get that response. Enclosed was the screenplay and permission to go ahead a do the play!

Wow.

So produce the play we did.

We played to three packed houses, and made more money for the school than any other production before it (not that any other production had made any money, but we sure did). I have photos from that production - I need to scan them in and embarass everyone involved. Some friends of mine, including Richard Kibble (Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, Deep Thought), Cordelia Molloy (Trillian) and Nicky Hicks (Barmaid, Eddie Two, Benjy mouse, Loon) have gone on to do better and bigger things, so this should be interesting for them! As an aside and a future reminder for me, Richard and I took part in another school show where we performed a Monty Python sketch that was, ahem, not well received by the audience...

The Hollywood production died, and I don't know if it has any relation to the current film - the screenplay sure feels different.

Fast forward a few more years.

I'm working at Magnetic Scrolls on adventure games and the owner, Anita Sinclair, knew Douglas Adams quite well. If fact, rumour had it that the first draft of "So Long And Thanks For All The Fish" was printed off on our laser printer.

Fast forward some more.

Douglas Adams dies.

I'm in shock. A hero of my childhood has died. What do you do? Re-read all the books of course.

Fast forward to the present.

OK, time for the actual review. I liked it. I liked it a lot. I think I have the history to call myself an original Hitch Hiker's fan. So even though some people think it doesn't live up to the original books, I don't care. It lives up to the spirit, and to a case in point, yes, some of the original great lines were missed (e.g. in the airlock scene), but they get made up visually - in the airlock scene, you are expecting them to go out the door, but instead they drop through the floor...

The graphics were great, the acting was superb and the script was good enough. Martin Freeman was a great Arthur Dent (even though he's basically playing the same character as in The Office and Love Actually - he'd better watch out about getting typecast as the archetypcal young, English, everyday man), I didn't like the interpretation of Zaphod much (I'm sorry, but he really needs two heads side-by-side), and I loved Zooey Deschanel as Trillian - she played Trillian as the everyday woman who doesn't take any crap, much better than Sandra Dickinson in the original BBC TV series. I especially loved the Whale scene - it worked so well and was basically the same as the great original TV series version.

It was great to hear so many people laughing in the audience. I could hear the jokes that I knew so well being set up, and was waiting in anticipation for the audience reaction. I was not disappointed. Those one liners and clever misdirections work as well today as they did when DNA penned them.

The scenes on Magrathea were exceptional. It was great to see the film-makers pay homage to DNA (as well as the inclusion of the original BBC TV Marvin stuck in line in the Vogon's queue, as well as Simon Jones as the Magrathean answering machine).

I liked it. Go see it. I wanna see it again.

In fact, I want to see them do "Restaurant".

Cooking Class

A while ago Nabila signed up for a cooking class at Shamiana, a local (and very good) Indian restaurant. As she is still coughing up chunks it seemed like a good idea for her to bail, so I graciously stepped up the the plate (pun intended) and went along instead.

What a great evening! Basically, you sit at a table in the restaurant and the head chef demonstrates how to cook all the dishes that you are being served. It was a small group of people, so there was lots of time for questions in between stuffing my face full of really great food.

Highly recommended.

Better

So after the initial nuclear strike sized first dose of antibiotics I'm feeling much better. Though the cough last night was pretty unpleasant. To top it off, Julian also now has a fever, so Bila is at home with him today.

Everytime I get a treatment of ABs, it also seems to be of a type I've never had before. I'm very allergic to penicillin, so I'm always a bit tentative when taking them - about 20% of the time I get perscribed some penicillin derivative that ties my stomach up in knots.

So far so good though.

Still Sick

For the past couple of weeks I've not been feeling too good. First the flu, then that goes to be replaced by some form of cold. I've been coughing up goo and my ear's have been alternating with each other on being gummed up and hurting. "Well, why haven't you been to see the doctor yet?", I hear you ask.

Well, I'm daft. Having grown up in the UK with crap healthcare, you generally don't go to see the doctor unless you're really down with some lurgy, as you have to wait forever as the health system is heavilly overloaded. I sort of got into the habit of thinking that the doctors have got better things to do than see me for a cold/flu when I'm going to get better by myself anyhow.

In the US, and especially with the great medical insurance I get from Microsoft, you can pretty much see anyone anytime you want. I still need to get used to that. The only times I've taken advantage of it I basically turned up and saw my doctor straight away. I still feel guilty for it for some reason!

Anyhow, Nabila called the doctor this morning and set up an appointment for 2pm as she finally got fed up with my procrastination ;-) So I'll be leaving home to head over there in a minute.

As normal though, when I finally get around to seeing someone, I start feeling totally fine again...

Gack, Cough, Splutter

Ick. Sick as a dog today, horrible, phlegmy, scratchy throat. Julian had something similar yesterday, so I bet he picked it up at daycare and, like the dutiful son he is, promptly passed it on to me.

No worries. After a bunch of rest today I feel mostly better.

At least I got to almost finishing up the CD artwork for the band's latest opus.

Speaking of the CD, I was checking out mastering software today. Not the stuff that burns the disc, but software that'll put the final eq and compression on the mixed tracks. So far the software from T-Racks looks favourite. I downloaded the demo and it really brought the mix out to the fore. Recommended. I think we'll use it.

T-Racks could be useful for podcast production too, in order to add the final zip to the audio.

I'm really looking forward to getting this CD wrapped up. It's dragged on for far too long, what with mixing issues (studio getting the tracks mixed up), and general time hassles.

Taking The Week Off

I decided to take this week off from work. Everything is in hand there and I have a bunch of vacation stacked up. Anyhow, I needed a little downtime, and some time to do a little recreational coding. For the past few months I've been building up a list of ideas I'd like to try out given some time.

Looks like this week is that time...

© 2001 to present, Steve Lacey.