March 29, 2006

I'm unplugging my TV

You heard me. No TV at all. Zip.

This means no Southpark, no Futurama, no Family Guy, no Daily Show, no Curb Your Enthusiasm, no Deadwood. Not even any movies on HBO.

As much as I love all of those shows (a lot), I've come to the realization that after I'm dead, no one is going to remember me for how many Larry David arguments I've sucked down nor how well I can recite the words to Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls (may his balls rest in pieces).

TV is evil. TV rots your brain. TV makes you stupid.

Actually - no. I take that back because I'm not sure it's really true. Some of the smartest people I know are those who most enjoy Southpark's toilet humor with great regularity.

The cardinal sin of TV is not that it makes you stupider... at least not directly. The cardinal sin of TV is that it munches up time... time that you could otherwise spend to cook a new dish or study a foreign language or make new friends or get smarter or get laid or fall in love. TV takes time away from the things that matter.

It's amazing how fast life passes you by. One minute you're saying goodbye to your parents and carrying stuff up to your dorm room on your first day of college... the next you're saying goodbye to your college friends as you depart for a new job and a new city... one day you have the misfortune to have to fly home and put one of your best friends in the ground... and before you know it you you've spent more time in a cubicle than you have in the classroom.

And I'm only 24... Just imagine what my dad is thinking right now when he still remembers holding me in a baseball glove that day I came home from the hospital for the first time in 19811. Or my mom... or my grandparents... yeesh.

How much of your life has been spent so far in front of a television? Was it worth it?

Frequently you'll hear people say things like "I'd really like to do X, but I just don't have the time", where X is taking piano lessons or starting a business or writing blogs or reading books on programming or drawing comics. And then they go home and sacrifice two and a half hours to the television every night.

Well, what the FUCK!?

I know. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone and it's complete bullshit. What we're really saying is that TV is more important to us than becoming a real badass and finding finding true love. When you stop and think about that, it's probably not true. At least I hope you think it's not true, because - damn...

So yeah. No TV.

In exchange, I'm allowing myself to read anything I want. Anything at all. Even trashy horror or romance novels or Penthouse personals should that strike my fancy... not that I, uh, would ever really do that last one... *ahem* At least with books, even trashy ones, you get to exercise your imagination (imagination is more important than knowledge, by the way) and maybe, just maybe, you can pick up a thing or two about the craft of writing in the process.

I intend to keep this up until my roommate Ashish comes home from Wilmington in a few weeks. This is what happens when I'm left to my own devices. After that things get a little harder without locking myself in my room for hours on end, but we'll see. I can be hardcore when I need to be.

Who's with me?



Coincidentally, someone named Irene from New York City also blogged about this very same topic yesterday. I really like her post, so go read Why You Too Should Cancel Cable .

[1] I was born a few weeks premature and was a very tiny baby... the size of a large softball you might say.

In Matters involving the art of avoiding sloth, Matters that are otherwise worthwhile

Posted at 12:05 AM | Permanent link | Comments (10)

August 05, 2005

Pretend Work

"The other problem with pretend work is that it often looks better than real work. When I'm writing or hacking I spend as much time just thinking as I do actually typing. Half the time I'm sitting drinking a cup of tea, or walking around the neighborhood. This is a critical phase-- this is where ideas come from-- and yet I'd feel guilty doing this in most offices, with everyone else looking busy."

-- Paul Graham

In Matters involving the art of avoiding sloth, Technology and Software

Posted at 06:52 PM | Permanent link

May 22, 2005

Roth IRAs and a nod to Vanguard Funds

Trafalgar Square, London

Over the years, I've been contributing to a Roth IRA a few thousand dollars at a time. Thus far, my account has resided with Ohio Savings Bank, simply because this was a convenient place start five years ago. I started out with a certificate of deposit (CD), but at some point the CD expired, and my money was rolled into a plain old savings account making interest in the low single digits. At the time I told myself that I didn't want to open another CD because I was planning to invest the money in something more substantial, such as a mutual fund, "real soon now". That was over a year and a half ago.

Of course, this is silly. The whole point of a Roth IRA is that you put money away, and although you can't touch your gains until age 59 1/2, the government can't touch them either. The higher the returns on your money, the more you are potentially saving in taxes. By having kept my money in a savings account earning bollocks in interest for over a year, I've thrown away thousands and thousands of dollars in potential tax savings over time. This is not a good idea.

For the past few weeks I've been been researching brokerages and fund companies that would allow me to invest in mutual funds. A handful of publications offer ratings of discount brokerages, but it seems that these are either generated randomly or there are other factors (kick-backs?) at play because I see little consistency amongst the opinions of different publications.

Around this time, it hit me that Philip Greenspun had written an essay entitled Money, Money, Money. In Money, Money, Money, Philip speaks highly of Vanguard funds, as do many of his commentators. This prompted me to surf over to

I had a look at their fee structure decided that I can avoid maintenance fees if I play my cards right. Their fund expense ratios look good. Looks like a good fit.

Vanguard's online Roth IRA transfer application is mostly straightforward, but at one point I got stuck and had a question. This is how this works:

I call 1-800-414-1321. Zero hold time! I'm connected to retirement specialist Brian. Brian answers my question and proceeds to ask if I understand Vanguard's fee structure. This is impressive because fees are one of the most confusing parts about financial accounts. At this point in my life I've come to expect vague statements about fees to be tucked away in obscure portions of the online documentation, and even after finding those I'm suspicious that something in the fine print is going to screw me.

I explain to Brian that I'm planning to invest all my money into one fund (the Total Stock Market Index Fund). Brian confirms my understanding that my total balance in this one fund will give me an exemption from any maintenance fees, and that the fund has no front-end or back-end costs. I thank Brian and hang up.

Before submitting the application I called Vanguard two more times to confirm a few things. Each time zero hold time, and each time the rep was very knowledgeable, spoke crisp English, and it didn't sound like he was working in the midst of a cocktail party.

After completing my Roth transfer application, I decided to transfer some additional money to Vanguard and open a general investing account in addition to my Roth IRA.

Vanguard has some nice features such as automatic investments where money is periodically drawn from your bank account and invested in a fund. This gives you the benefit of dollar cost averaging, and also forces you to be disciplined about your savings. The nice thing about investing in no-load mutual funds is that you can make a lot of small (few hundred dollar) transactions like this per year without getting reamed by commission fees.

Thus far I like Vanguard for mutual fund investments. We'll see what the future holds.

By the way, if you're thinking about investing in any capacity, I highly recommend that you take a stroll down to your local art house movie theater and see Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room in order to build up your mistrust of corporate America and investment bankers before you give them your money. Jeff has a good review.

Posted at 05:15 PM | Permanent link

March 08, 2005

On my one year in the real world

On year ago today, I began work at IBM.

I cannot express my thoughts and emotions regarding this past year any more perfectly than Paul Graham does on page 230 of Hackers and Painters:

'Many people feel confused and depressed in their early twenties. Life seemed so much more fun in college. Well, of course it was. Don't be fooled by the surface similarities. You've gone from guest to servant. It's possible to have fun in this new world. Among other things, you now get to go behind the doors that say "authorized personnel only." But the change is a shock at first, and all the worse if you're not consciously aware of it.'

-- Paul Graham

How true, how true.

Luckily I think that I'm getting the hang of the "having fun" part, and by that I mean more than just the superficial definition of "having fun."

The game of life is a constant learning experience. It doesn't end with college and it isn't limited to equations we read in text books. Any person who hasn't figured that out is a poor soul, indeed.

In Matters involving the art of avoiding sloth

Posted at 11:10 PM | Permanent link

November 21, 2004

A snapshot of my life circa November 2004

From an email I sent to Anders on 11/7/2004:

It [work] really is very different than school, and it seems that I'm realizing more and more differences as time goes on. In spite of this, however, I still consider IBM to be my second education. If I had to guess, I'd say that I've learned just as much over the past eight odd months as I did during a comparable semester at school. It's the shock of practicality, I suppose and it makes one realize that the willingness to learn new things and solve problems and work hard are the most important things that one could possibly get out of undergrad. Then again, I guess it's different for different people and different jobs. From talking to Amy Chan, it unfortunately sounds like she doesn't find her job particularly rewarding.

I sometimes wonder how the tech industry differs from other industries. At least in software, the myth of being able to go home at 5 and not have homework is completely untrue. For the past two weeks I've been lucky to get out of work by 8pm (sitting in a cube with no windows, now that it is getting dark early, I hardly see the sun), and I can't remember the last weekend where work was not on my mind for at least part of it. This is the life many of my co-workers lead as well. I knew this going in and it doesn't bother me all that much at this point in my life, but I believe it is a misconception that many people in college have. Amy Chan tells me that things weren't like this when she was at P&G, and that it is one of the big things that bothers her about Accenture. It makes me wonder. It will be interesting to hear what other people's experiences are when (and if) they enter the workplace vs grad school and such.

One of the things I really do miss from school is the social atmosphere. Sure, I have friends here, but it just isn't quite the same. I don't think there is that same bond of everyone being in the same boat "getting through this together". The cultures of working hard because you are being paid to do so, and working hard solely for the purpose of learning something are quite different. That was something that was somewhat unexpected to me, although I'm really not sure why.

Well, I'm typing this to you while sitting in a coffee shop eating breakfast. I just finished my pancakes and coffee so I had better go. Really, I've had a bit too much caffeine I think and am quite jittery right now so I apologize for any typos.

In Matters involving the art of avoiding sloth

Posted at 08:00 PM | Permanent link

October 25, 2004

Physician Salaries

Philip Greenspun has recently linked to a very interesting article on physician salaries.

According to the most recent results published in Physician Socioeconomic Statistics 2003, the average physician in the U.S. makes around $200,000/year after paying malpractice insurance and all other expenses.

Food for thought for those of you currently in med school, and not currently in med school.

This, of course, reminds me of Philip's quote in his essay, Tuition-free MIT:

"My top students in Course 6 are all telling me that they don't want to be engineers. They are heading for professional school. We will live in a society where the best educated engineers are not designing anti-lock brakes. They are either managing comparatively poorly educated people who are designing anti-lock brakes, stitching up wounds in people who were injured by faulty anti-lock brakes, or defending companies that got sued for their anti-lock brake systems that didn't work."

In Matters involving the art of avoiding sloth

Posted at 10:18 PM | Permanent link

October 02, 2004

On reading the news being considered harmful

I would like to mirror and flesh-out my comment that I posted to Jeff's weblog in response to his comment on Philip Greenspun's latest entry "Reading the news considered harmful".

In short, Philip makes the very interesting observation that people's fascination with reading the news may in fact be an indication of "economic and intellectual stagnation".

I find that the best way to combat this is to be very discriminative about what reads. I try to only read very high-quality content (like Philip Greenspun's weblog for instance) on a daily basis. I try to avoid subscribing to any "high volume" feeds (such as more traditional news outlets that have multiple new items per day). Lately, I have also been eliminating a lot of the feeds that I don't think are up to snuff.

This means that at most I will get a handful of new item to be read each day, but each item that I read is likely to be sufficiently intellectually stimulating. It also means that there is no temptation to continually wast time checking my feedreader because I'm aware of the fact that there will likely not be any new items available to me.

I think that Philip G's assertion that keeping up on the news on a daily basis in effect makes one "stupider" is an interesting one. I know that for a while I was trying to get into the habit of picking up a newspaper every Sunday and reading it "cover to cover" on the premise that I should be more aware of my surroundings. I have fallen out of the habit lately and had been somewhat berating myself for it, but perhaps my unconscious was just trying to tell me something.

What new things did I usually learn week to week? George Bush said such and such really stupid thing. John Kerry said such and such utterly unprofound thing. More people died in Iraq. Israelis and Palestinians hate each other. North Carolina is losing jobs.

I find that anyone who does not completely live in a cave will ultimately learn any really important news simply as a product of their environment - either by hearing it from other people or being hit over the head with it. I first heard about the Sept 11th attacks by word of mouth - not by watching CNN.

Usually late-breaking news is so speculative anyway, and one has to sift through so much kruft on the off chance of tripping over something mildly important. It's much more efficient to wait until the news has more time to be digested and filters down to the higher quality channels that have commentators who have actually taken the time to think about what they are saying.

I know that when I was in college I very rarely had time to keep up with the news at all. At the time I largely considered this to be a bad thing. But what did I really miss? There was something about some politician and an intern that my mom was really excited about when she would call me on the phone. Gary Condit I think his name was? What else? Laci Peterson? Perhaps this is an ideal I should be getting back to.

In Matters involving the art of avoiding sloth

Posted at 12:11 PM | Permanent link

September 23, 2004

On the search for the ideal study environment

Lately, I have been in search of the ideal environment in which to work and study. Since coming to the revelation during my junior year of college that I was on average five times more productive while doing work at the Starbucks on Euclid Heights than I was in my dorm room (henceforth known as the Starbucks Revelation) I have naturally assumed that a coffee shop atmosphere is the best place for me to work and study. Unfortunately, I'm finding more and more that the coffee shop environment breaks down when it comes to studying code, doing actual programming, or undertaking any technical endeavor that requires a focused period of intense thought.

I think that I am just becoming increasingly aware of the need for a quiet work environment through such beacons of light as Peopleware. So how is it that the Starbucks environment seemed to work so well for me? I think that it was, indeed, better overall than the dorm environment as it isolated me away from such distractions as my friends and the Internet (or is that redundant, hmm), but in fact suboptimal for highly technical matters. I suspect that I could have been even more productive in college had I spent more time programming in the library.

Coffee shops do offer some advantages over libraries - the ease of obtaining stimulating and relaxing beverages such as coffee and tea, the somewhat inspirational atmosphere of being surrounded by others who are studying (if one chooses a location wisely), and particularly the off-chance of having a random interesting conversation with someone new. Just last week as I was sitting in a Starbucks on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill when a middle-aged gentleman took notice that I was reading a book on ANSI Common Lisp and asked me out of curiosity why I was bothering to study Lisp in this day and age. Of course I explained to him my reasoning, and also had the opportunity to explain to him my take on the commoditization of software. Not only do such opportunities help get one's thoughts straight, they are enormously satisfying and have the potential to be educational in unexpected ways - well worth the sacrifice of a few hours of productivity.

What is needed is a combination of the two types of stimulating environments - either a coffee shop with quiet study rooms away from the main commotion or a library that has a more social area where one can buy coffee. Surprisingly, I actually found such a combo in the Birmingham Central Library in England. Alas, no such luck here, however. Just one of the many things that Americans (or at least North Carolinians) can learn from Europeans, I suppose. No such luck with the compartmentalized coffee shop either. About the closest one will come is a larger coffee shop, where it is easier to find a relatively deserted spot where one can concentrate (the Caribou Coffee in Chapel Hill is about the best I've found in this respect).

Lacking either of these ideal places, I am going to have to divide my time between spending time in coffee shops for less technically-intense activities and finding a quiet area for more technical areas of study. Reading books on general software development and meta-programming (such as Peopleware or Hackers and Painters or Joel on Software) are probably the upper limit of what the coffee shop environment will bear, with all other pseudo-technical and pleasure-reading included. These are the types of books that at a cursory reading tend to make one go "Hmm, that's interesting", or "Wow, good point, I never thought of that" that may lead to revelations and epiphanies later on as one applies the ideas therein and relates them to other concepts, but they do not require focused technical thought to grasp them at the moment. However, when one makes the jump to such activities as real programming and studying code in-depth, a higher level of concentration and therefore a quiet environment become necessary. I haven't yet decided where writing falls on the continuum. I am writing this essay in a coffee shop at the moment, but I suspect that a perfectly quiet area would actually be more ideal.

Unfortunately, finding a nice quiet study area proves to be a surprisingly difficult problem to solve at this point in my life. The home environment is not exactly ideal. Having a roommate with a girlfriend means that frequently there are people in the other room talking or watching TV while I am trying to think, and this leads to the temptation to want to go in the other room and hang out. Plus there is the constant calling of the Internet to want to be checked. Frankly, this environment is little better than the dorm environment that prompted the Starbucks Revelation in the first place.

Where else to look? The library? Unfortunately Raleigh's public library system more closely resembles a loose collection of branch libraries. There is no one large main library (that I know of) with a nice study area, and besides the libraries tend not to be open very late. A park can sometimes be an option, especially for reading, but only during the daytime and only during nice weather. Even then it is difficult to use a laptop outdoors. I also suppose that I could go into work and work in my cubicle on the weekends and after-hours when everyone else has gone home and things are actually quiet for a change, but this tends to be somewhat depressing after spending such an enormous amount of time there during the week. None of these places provides a reliable, pleasant solution and I am somewhat at a loss for other places to try.

I really wonder what the the libraries for the big three schools around here are like, whether they are open to the public or otherwise if I could find someway to insert myself into one of them on a regular basis. I will have to look into this. Anyone who goes to school at Duke, UNC, or NC State have any thoughts on this matter? Another option, I suppose, would be to try to rearrange my work schedule to take better advantage of the quiet times both at work and at home.

The quest continues. If anyone has any good suggestions on where to work and study in the post-university world, I would love to hear them.

In Matters involving the art of avoiding sloth

Posted at 12:32 AM | Permanent link

November 02, 2003

The psychology of learning

Today, I spent some time reading Bruce Eckel's weblog. I recently picked up a copy of his book, Thinking in Java, and the more I read his stuff, the more I like the guy.

One of his entires, The Ideal Programmer, is chock full some very insightful viewpoints on the field. In the entry, he links to an essay, written by a Computer Science professor, entitled "The psychology of Learning" which spells out explictely a lot of things that it seems I have known intuitively for a long time, but never really been able to put my finger on. It does indeed make me want to be more perfection-oriented.

All very interesting, thought-provoking reads.

Material like this just makes me want to take significant blocks of time and read up on "The Art of doing X". The problem is that there are just so many different Xs and who has the time? Invariably, whenever I spend a large amount of time studying a topic that is not immediately pressing to my situation, I feel like I am neglecting those things that are (homework/studying, and soon to be work), even though I know that I will benefit greatly from it in the long run.

I think that I ideally need to get into some kind of routine where I just automatically set aside a certain percentage of time, week to week, for studying the art of doing x.

I find the burnout is till the biggest problem with schemes like this, and how to combat that? That's the holy grail. Hmm...

In Matters involving the art of avoiding sloth

Posted at 02:34 PM | Permanent link