Tuesday, December 31, 2013

four views of the same photo

Several years ago, I read this NYTimes account of four journalists taking photos of the same event.

It's interesting how each of them views it.  From journalist Charlie Cole:
I think his action captured peoples’ hearts everywhere, and when the moment came, his character defined the moment, rather than the moment defining him. He made the image. I was just one of the photographers. And I felt honored to be there.

... This tends to overshadow all the other tremendous work that other photographers did up to and during the crackdown. Some journalists were killed during this coverage and almost all risked being shot at one time or another. Jacques Langevin, Peter and David Turnley, Peter Charlesworth, Robin Moyer, David Berkwitz, Rei Ohara, Alon Reininger, Ken Jarecke and a host of others contributed to the fuller historical record of what occurred during this tragedy and we should not be lured into a simplistic, one-shot view of this amazingly complex event.

A different journalist:
For some reason, the editor in the office did not pick the frame of the man blocking the tanks. Instead, they picked the frame of the man climbing up the tank. The next day, A.P.’s version was widely played. They called me up at the hotel and I told them to have a close look again. So my photo of the man blocking the tank was released more than 12 hours later than my competitor’s.

Neither of them had the photo that was most widely used. That distinction belonged to the A.P. photographer, whose photo fronted many newspapers worldwide. But what these two journalists wrote in response was so different. One was frustrated at his colleague for making him "lose" to his competitor journalist. The other was awestruck at what he had experienced, and shared his spotlight by giving credit to others.

I think we each have these sides within us: the petty competitive aspect, and the awestruck grateful side.  I re-read this article every year or two.

Friday, December 20, 2013

4-leaf potato

Going to London and Dublin next week!

Over IM:

Potamus: in my mind, dublin is a frozen land with icy potatoes stuck in the ground

me: ha ha
me: icy potatoes!
me: omg
me: are there a lot of potatoes there?

Potamusi think so
Potamus: ireland in our history book was all about potatoes
Potamus: and then when they didn't have potatoes, it was the potato famine

me: in my mind, dublin is a green shamrock field with a big castle, pubs inside the castle, friendly singing with an irish accent, big bear hugs between big burly men, and little singing leprechauns

Potamus: wow


We will see who is closer!

Thursday, November 28, 2013


In life, there are some things where no matter how hard you try, it may or may not work out the way you want. I went through this once before, when I was 24. My mom was very ill, and I thought for many months that I was going to lose her. She went into the ER a couple weeks before Google's IPO. People sometimes ask with a touch of envy what it was like to be at Google pre-IPO and during the IPO. The answer is that I don't really remember the atmosphere during that period, because it was so overshadowed by my fervent wish that my mom could recover. Things felt very bleak at the time.

I made a vow back then. I vowed that if she recovered, I would be completely grateful. It felt like a stretch to even ask for that in my mind. It felt like I was overreaching. It was hard to see a way through the darkness.

But she recovered, pretty much fully. 96%. Some doctor threw out that number, and it's what I've been using. That's more than good enough. For a year after the whole ordeal, I was grateful all the time. I was probably really pleasant to be around, because I was continually happy. After a year, the gratitude gradually started to fade. I wrote myself emails to be delivered on a future date using a special service, reminding myself to be grateful. I just received one of the emails a few months ago.

Today I am sitting in my childhood bedroom in my parents' home in Las Vegas. They have lived in the same house for 22 years. My mom cooked me dumplings last night, and noodles.

I have forgotten how to be grateful. I tried. I kept a gratitude journal last year where I wrote down 3 things daily that I was grateful for. I made dozens of entries. It felt forced.

It's different to logically think up something to be grateful for and write it down, vs feel it intuitively deep into your bones, 24-7. I think sometimes life threatens to take things away, so that you appreciate what you have.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

"careless" employees

Recently a friend said to me, "My remote engineer contractors aren't committed enough.  They say they'll get a feature finished by the end of the week, but they don't finish in time!  How can I get them to be more committed?"

Another friend said, "My engineers in China are not invested.  They're not detail-oriented.  Our error rate on the site is insanely high.  The engineers just do a half-assed job.  I wish I could hire engineers who care more."

A third person said, "My engineer is too young and isn't careful.  He doesn't check his work.  He lets serious bugs get onto the site."

In all 3 cases, after hearing about how these engineers are careless, I had this exchange:

Me: "Do you do code reviews?"

Friend: "No."  (except first friend who does them retroactively after the code is already checked in)

Me: "Do you send out technical designs for review, before you start coding?"

Friend: "No."

Me: "Do you have unittests to catch the regressions?"

Friend: "No, we barely have time to develop the features.  We don't have time to write automated tests."

Me: "Do you have manual QA?"

Friend: "No.  I try to test the site when I have time."

Me: "Do you have a standup every morning, so that you know about schedule delays after at most one day?"

Friend: "No.  We're such a small team.  It seems overkill."

Why, why, why would people expect to get great results if they flout all the best-practices that have developed over the past 20 years?  And then blame the poor engineer?

Let's say I ask an architect to build a house.  But because his hourly rate is expensive, he's not allowed to make a blueprint first, or build a small-scale replica, or to spend time holding discussions with subcontractors.  Every minute needs to be spent doing hands-on work on the house.  The house ends up being completed late due to re-work, and after being finished, it has all sorts of problems.  Do I blame the architect?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


I started taking meditation classes at SF Insight.  Meditation is amazing!  I've been taking weekend classes that go from 10am to 5pm.  The first time I look at my watch, it's already 4-5 hours into the class.

This is not the case with yoga.  With yoga, the first time I look at my watch is about 10 minutes into the class.  Then I look at my watch every 2-3 minutes until the interminable thing finally ends.

The chapel where my first meditation class was held.

The meditation class touches on questions I've struggled with for years, like how to care a lot about something (e.g. work, parents, a relationship) without getting worked up about it, and becoming obsessed with the outcome.  The meditation teacher had an interesting answer about stepping away a little and watching myself behave in an obsessed way, as though I'm observing another person.

Courtyard where we did walking meditations.

Another question that has haunted me for years is how to be around other people, without taking on their material desires.  For example, I used to have no desire to fly in business class in an airplane.  I had opportunities to do so at Google, and I ignored them because it did not seem important.  Last year, I spent a week in Shanghai visiting a dear friend W who loves flying business class.  At the time, she was traveling every month, flying 10-12 hours each way.  Every day during my visit, it would come up in conversation.  Now I've had a desire to fly business class since that time.

This was an innocent example, but there are more pervasive desires that I think are not inherent to me, but just picked up via osmosis from others.

The meditation teacher said that if someone is really affecting me strongly in a way that's hard for me, I can avoid them, like I would avoid a wild elephant.  If it's just a minor influence, then I can first make sure to emotionally feel my own preferences throughout my body.  If I'm only thinking logically about my preferences, that's not very strong, and I would be easily swayed by others.  If I make sure to truly feel my inner wisdom on an emotional level, then I would be less impressionable.

Next I am going to visit Spirit Rock and then the Green Gulch Zen Farm in Marin.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Gourmet tacos from a truck!

Today I had these two tacos from a food truck. Both use organic local ingredients. The food truck has Zagat rating 25.

I love California.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

I love these Minted engineer quips

Poloomg theres a gigantic cake that was just put on Jen's desk 
Poloshould we quickly eat it before she gets back?
Kasquick gogogo. no time to cut. use your hands


JeetI wrote a tool called SQLrillex. When you run it, it drops all databases


Aul: Just looked at the tupperware in my lunch. The brand is "unix". I'm using unix tupperware. 
Bond: "It's a unix tupperware. I know this."

Friday, September 27, 2013

what percentage of the world feels secure?

Last weekend I went on a 3-day trip with 12 people, as a bridal weekend in celebration of L's upcoming wedding.  I finally figured out why it felt so cozy.

All of the people there wanted to make everyone else feel good.  No one was trying to establish their own superiority by cutting down someone else.  No one was sizing up others, thinking, "Am I better than them, or are they better than me?"  No one was silently judging others, and revealing it through subconscious cues.

It was really remarkable.

What was also remarkable is that it took me several days to figure this out.  You'd think I would notice right away.  But I am so desensitized to the dominance games that I barely notice them, or their absence.

I wonder what percentage of the world is secure like L's friends, and what percentage play dominance games.  Is the world predominantly secure, and I just happen to have met many competitive people because they congregate to the Valley, or because I have been oblivious and ended up accumulating acquaintances like this?

Or is the world predominantly feeling insecure, and L's friends are just exception?  

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How to Get People to Stop Doing Things that Bug You

A few years ago, I spent two hours reading internet webpages about how to be more punctual.  I've struggled with being non-punctual throughout my life, and it's always one of my New Year's Resolutions.

One page talked about how if you are trying to get your late friend to improve, it is not productive to say "You are late again!  You're always late!  Why are you perpetually late!  You are just a late inconsiderate person!"  That reaffirms in their head that part of their self-identity involves being late.  You've said they're selfish, and they'll sink to your expectations.

Instead the web page suggested you say, "You're late -- how unlike you."  Then the person will want to rise up to the expectation that they're characteristically punctual.

I realized as soon as I read the words that this would totally work on me.  

If it is too disingenuous to imply that they're punctual, you could use a variant such as "You're late -- how unlike you, since you're usually so thoughtful about everyone".


When I lived in my Mountain View townhouse, I threw parties every year or so.  After the second one, both of my neighbors complained.  One wrote me an angry note that said, "You threw a loud party again!  This is unacceptable!  We complained last year, and you did it again!"

The other said, "I know you're a considerate person, so I want to let you know that the noise from your party disrupted several of us.  Thanks -- you've been a good neighbor."

Which one do you think made me feel sheepish and determined to go the extra mile to make absolutely sure it never happened again?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Oh snap! Photos

Tom, Potamus, James, and I went to a small island for a weekend.

The 3 of them cooked dinner. My job was to take photos during the preparation, and to do dishes.

Me: "I'm done with photos!"

Tom: [looking at the photos I took] "No, your job was to take *good* photos. You haven't started yet."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Fantastic Feast

Yuichi invited ten people to dinner at House of Prime Rib.  Yuichi is the recruiter at Minted.

He created a Minted party bunting banner that said FANTASTIC FEAST.  He then called the restaurant four times asking if he can hang the banner over the dinner table.

Three times, the restaurant said he needed to wait until the manager is available to speak with him.  On the fourth time, the manager answered and said no.

I find it so endearing that Yuichi cared enough to call the restaurant four times.  When you learn to do creative writing, the writing books teach that the most important factor to making a character interesting is to make him want something a lot.

It's very compelling when someone has a strong goal.  It makes you automatically want to help them achieve that goal.

James and I now say "Fantastic Feast!" when we're faced with good food.

We also adapted this to when we make mistakes.  We say "Gigantic Gaffe!" and "Enormous Error!" and "Fantastic Fiasco!"

Sunday, June 30, 2013

let your intensity flag fly

Yesterday Potamus told me about her friend "Janet", who is setting up an online dating profile.  Janet is an ambitious person, with two degrees from Harvard and a hobby of running marathons.  She's afraid of intimidating men with her intensity, so she toned down her profile.  She listed demure hobbies such as baking, and omitted the marathons.

I think this is a mistake.  She is going to attract guys who want a domestic girlfriend.  These are the very guys who are going to be intimidated when they learn her true self!  The guys will say "I liked you better when you spent Saturday baking instead of training for a marathon" and she'll feel dejected and want to hide her true self even more.

Instead, if she makes her profile reveal the full level of her intensity, she will attract guys who want that.  They will be the type of boyfriend who helps her get ready for her Saturday mega-runs, and who talk proudly about her degrees without feeling threatened.  By toning down her profile, she is making it less appealing to these guys, who will skip over her and head for the profile of the power woman who doesn't hide who she is.

People occasionally asked me in the past, "Do you feel inclined to act less outspoken / smart around guys so they will like you more?"

Obviously no.  Then you attract guys who want a demure girlfriend.  That's never going to work.  Obviously act 100% as smart and opinionated as you are, so that you attract men who want that.

There are many men who want to be with the smartest woman they can find.  Some are themselves very successful.  Some are domestic and want to be the househusband.  They have been searching for a powerful woman and will consider Janet their dream come true.

I understand the urge to repress part of yourself in order to fit in more.  I have not felt it with romantic situations, but I have felt it with the chinese community, when I was young (19, 20 years old).  Once I was in a group of 20 chinese people who were recently immigrated from China, and they did not understand a particular English word.  They looked it up in the dictionary but still didn't really understand it.  Everyone in the room was talking about how this word is very unfathomable.  Finally they asked me if I knew.  I did know what it meant.  But I felt that it would be too awkward to stand out as the only person lecturing the whole room on the word definition, so I shook my head and implied that I didn't know either.

Then I felt extremely awkward for the rest of the evening.  I had hidden my true self in an attempt to fit in, and actually it made me far more isolated.

Let your true self show!  If someone is too intimidated by this, it is better that they self-select out early.  It is doomed anyway, so it's better that you don't waste time on it.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


Minted's annual white party is coming up!  I am very excited.  

However, dilemma!  I want to wear a sandstone-colored dress.  It is a great dress.  But it is a white party!  Dilemma!

Here is a photo to indicate the color of the dress:

Do you think I should do it?  Here are some photos from last year's white party, to give a sense of acceptable attire.

Walking from party bus to party.

Me with work BFF.  Her dress is slightly off-white!  Ivory perhaps?

Attire in this photo definitely looks #FFFFFF.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Always let them see the fear in your eyes

There's a leadership philosophy which emphasizes not revealing your fears.  "Never let on that you have fears.  If your team sees that the leader is worried, it will make them discouraged and even more scared themselves."

I used to believe in this, when I was just starting out at Microsoft.  My first manager subscribed to this theory and would tell me, "No matter how you worry on the inside, never let it show to your team."  He lived this philosophy, and never told me about any worries, even as that specific project started faltering.

Many years later, my management coach at Google countered this theory.  "The most effective leader is one who is straightforward, and comfortable in their own skin," said Brian, the management coach.  "Think about Bill Clinton.  Effective leaders let you know when they're nervous.  They do it in a calm way."

I've subscribed to Brian's approach for 6 or 7 years now, and I find it effective.  If the team knows that the leader is nervous about X, they'll focus on that rather than being distracted by Y.  Seeing the leader's vulnerability makes the team feel a stronger connection.  It's also a relief for the leader to be honest rather than trying to bottle up all of the worries.

There are a few keys:

1. Spend most of the time describing potential solutions, not dwelling on the problem.

e.g. "I want to reduce the likelihood of Bob getting defensive at tomorrow's meeting.  I sent out an agenda beforehand so he can be mentally prepared.  I invited Joe who is a calming presence.  I also will limit the time we spend on controversial topics.  But I'm still worried that all of these are not enough."

Don't spend all your time catastrophizing: "I'm worried that Bob will get defensive at tomorrow's meeting. If he does, it might set the tone and influence Phyllis and Janet.  If all three are opposed to the contract I proposed, it could kill the deal.  If we don't get this deal, we'll fall short of our revenue targets."

2. State the situation in a calm tone of voice.

3. Make it clear that you welcome help, but that you are not relying on the help, and that you will be resourceful in the situation regardless.

Say "This is my plan, but I'm not 100% confident it will succeed, and I welcome suggestions."  rather than "What are we going to do?!  This is horrible!"


I met a startup CEO a few years ago.  The startup started going through tumultuous times, and the CEO never revealed any worry.  He broadcasted an aura of great confidence.  However, everyone else in the company was already highly worried because they could log into Google Analytics and see that there were major issues with traffic levels, user acquisition, and revenue.  The CEO acting stoic just made people feel out of touch with him, and less able to brainstorm together.

There's always a roller coaster in every startup, no matter how successful it is.  It's better to come across as a courageous human than a stoic robot.

Pianos and art

There are many pianos in Moscow, in unexpected places.  Today we went to Gorky Park.  There were half a dozen pianos used as flowerpots.

There are also ping pong tables in the parks.  How are they not ruined by rain?

We went into a random underground walkway in order to cross the street, and it was filled with beautiful art for sale!  

I like the brush strokes in these paintings.  The middle one is a crucifix theme but doesn't seem emo like most paintings of the crucifixion.

This sculpture is subdued, with subtle emotions.  It is a nice alternative to all the Rodin sculptures I've been seeing, of nude sculptures writhing in agony as they combat serpents or each other.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Breakfast and Kremlin

Yesterday was my first day of the Moscow trip.

There was a parade in Red Square, so we ate breakfast at a nearby cafe.  I'm guessing it was an Americanized cafe, because there was pizza on the menu and no borscht.

Service was slow.  It took 20 minutes before any food was brought to the table.  My food arrived 15 minutes before my dad's pizza, so I finished eating before his food arrived.

Why are Russian restaurants so slow?

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The Kremlin is surrounded by a tall wall.  Walking around it looking for an entrance felt like the Mongolians trying to circle around the Great Wall.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Walt Disney Family Museum

Walt Disney was a badass.  He starts a company at age 20 making cartoon commercials.  It goes bankrupt.  He starts another company doing animated short films.  After 8 years, he creates a popular rabbit character Oswald.

His Hollywood boss cheats him out of the intellectual rights for the rabbit.  Walt loses the profits and rights.

This happens in New York, and Walt faces a two-day train ride coming back to California.  Just before getting on the train, he telegrams to his brother (and business partner) "Don't worry".  Then he boards the train.

During the train ride, he comes up with the idea for Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney is such a baller!

I went to the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio.  The exhibit showing Walt Disney's many animated films.

Walt Disney wanted an artist Herb to race all weekend and finish a sketch for the proposed Disneyland.  Herb didn't think there was enough time.  The story is that Walt looked at Herb with brimming eyes and said, "Herbie, will you do it if I stay here with you?"

Then Herb said, "Sure, if you stay here all night tonight and all night Sunday night and help me, I'll stay here and see what I can do."

The internet says Walt Disney was a slavedriver who worked his animators to the bone for little wages, which is what led them to go on strike in the 40s.  So why was he so nice to Herb?  

A telegram after his passing.  "At least he left an inspired legion of talent, taste, and imagination to guide the greatest show on Earth.  Our hearts are at half mast."

Another interesting point from the museum is that Walt Disney at age 21 lamented that he joined the animation industry "six years too late".  He felt like all the interesting work had been done, and he had missed the boat.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

the Wang family secret of raising a kid

Recently I was talking to a friend Az, who is debating whether to ever have kids.  He likes the idea of having kids, but doesn't want to give up his freedom for 18 years.

American society places such high pressure on parents to spend face-time and money on their kid!  To wit:
  • the parent and the child must spend many hours per day together, or else the parent feels guilty
  • it is essential to get the child into the most hyped preschool and then private school and prep school
  • must buy expensive brain-enhancing toys and games 
  • must minimize usage of babysitters and nannies
Using these metrics, my parents scored 0 out of 4.  They were very busy being immigrants and working multiple jobs simultaneously.  My mom had a sandwich-making job by day and janitor job by night.  I was a latchkey kid.  I went to an average public school in a state ranked #49 out of 50 US states for education.  I was often foisted onto cheap babysitters.  Yet I turned out fine, by most parental standards.  I graduated Caltech at 18 and have led some cool engineering work projects at Minted and Google and am a cheerful person.  How'd that happen?

Because... those American expectations are not the most important!  My parents did these other things:
  • taught my brother and me to read when we turned two
  • taught us multiplication and division at age five, algebra at age seven, calculus at age ten
  • as a result, we felt competent and enjoyed learning
  • we became self-motivated and my parents never had to nag us.  We made our own decisions regarding education, which made us self-reliant
Some people hear this and reply, "You can't teach every kid to read at age two!"  I disagree.  I think people just give up too early.  I watched my mom teach my brother.  On the first day, she spent two hours teaching him to read two chinese words.  She did it patiently, with encouragement and hugs and laughter, so he was having fun.  There was zero sign of progress for over an hour.  Toward the end, it seemed that he could distinguish between the two words at a slightly-higher-than-random frequency, but he also could've just been guessing.

The next day, he had forgotten everything.  My mom started over.  After an hour, it seemed like he could say the right word 70% of the time.

The next day, he forgot everything again.  It took an hour to get back to the same state.

All of these sessions were loving and joyous, so my brother enjoyed them.

It took about five days of teaching for one to two hours per day before my brother learned to read four words.  90% of parents would have given up.  That's why 90% of kids cannot read at age two.

By age four, we read chinese books like "1001 Arabian Nights" and "365 Bedtime Stories to Read to Your Child".  We spent many hours per day reading.

The same goes for math.  I went to first grade in China.  Every single student in my class was required to memorize the multiplication table.  So, everyone did it.  If you expect it, and you are patient, every kid can do it.  In America, there is no expectation that a five-year-old memorize the multiplication table, so very few of them can do it.

My mom likes to say, "If you do the work to teach your kids things when they are young, they learn to love learning and you don't have to do any more work."

As a result, I find it shocking when parents actually have to sit down with their kids in the evening and nag them to do their homework.  My parents didn't even know what subjects I was taking in junior high.  They'd look at my end-of-semester report card and say, "You took geology?  Was that your choice or the school's choice?"

Now I've told you the Wang family secret!  Actually, my mom's last name is Su, so it's the Wang and Su family secrets.   I fully intend to violate most of the American expectations I listed above.  The biggest reason that I've worked and accumulated money is to hire nannies.  I'm going to hire as many nannies as possible, with zero guilt.  I'm also going to teach my kid to read when they turn two.

My imaginary future-child.  Not pictured: three nannies taking turns watching over this kid.

Also, if it turns out to be unworkable, and I never get my kid to read at age two or to love learning, I'm not going to sweat it!  Why must the kid be successful?  Why not just be content with a happy kid?

I will be bothered if I have an emo kid though, who doesn't like hugging.  That is my nightmare as a potential parent.

My fear. Please don't let this happen.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How I Became More Assertive

As a child and teenager, I was not assertive.  I rarely said no to people.  Sometimes people made sexist jokes in my presence, and I was very bothered but too timid to speak out against it.  Watching them get away with the offensive comments gave me a sick feeling in my stomach.  As a teenager, occasionally young men would keep touching my shoulder or squeezing me many times in an hour, and it made me uncomfortable but I didn't know how to stop it.

Now I am very assertive.  Some friends might say too much so.  Anyway, I would like to share how I personally achieved this, for the young people who are struggling with their own journey of becoming assertive.

When I was 20, I decided that I would become more assertive.  It was important to me.  But I was so unused to speaking up for myself that it often took several days for me to even realize that someone had made me uncomfortable.  It was too big a leap to go from where I was to being able to speak up for myself immediately on the spot.   So, the pact I made to myself was that when I realized that my boundaries were violated, I would email the person and tell them, even if the realization came several days after the fact.

This was so immensely awkward.

There were many email exchanges like this:

Me: On Saturday, when you made that joke about how Flight Simulator programmers are slackers because we all got two weeks of vacation after we shipped our product, it really bothered me.  We're not slackers.  We work very hard.  I'm really annoyed.

Friend: Wait.  You didn't say anything at the time.  In fact, we kept talking for another hour and you were laughing and having a great time.  Even the next day, you sent me a happy article.  Now you're telling me that it bothered you?

Me: Yes, that is accurate.

Friend: This is really awkward!  Why are you telling me three days later!  Anyway I didn't mean to insult you.  I was just envious because we only got one day vacation on Microsoft Office.

Me: Thanks.

There were numerous exchanges like this.  Many were far more awkward.  The most awkward one was when I had a happy group outing and then emailed one person 24 hours later:
"Yesterday you made a joke at my expense that really bothered me.  [details of the joke]  I just want you to know that I should've told you to go fuck yourself."

That person never replied.  They probably forwarded the email to others in the outing with a subject such as "Niniane is really weird".

But overall the plan worked!  At first it took me three days to realize that I was bothered by something.  Over a period of months, this became two days, one day, then just a few hours.  After more than a year, I was able to realize in the moment when I was bothered, and speak up about it.  Now it has been over a decade, and I am so accustomed to being assertive that I take it for granted as part of myself.

This has been so helpful in life, work, love, friendships.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Iron Lady

I happen to be in the middle of watching "The Iron Lady", a film where Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher. I started yesterday, and today her passing is all over the news.

I like the proposal scene, where she gives the Terms and Conditions of her acceptance.

From IMDB:
Young Denis Thatcher: Margaret, will you marry me?

Young Denis Thatcher: [pause -Margaret stares at him] Well?

Young Margaret Thatcher: [pause -Margaret is still staring, Dennis kisses her hand] Yes. Yes!

Young Denis Thatcher: [Margaret starts to cry from happiness, Dennis leans in for a kiss, but she suddenly pulls back] What?

Young Margaret Thatcher: I love you so much but, I will never be one of those women, Dennis. Who stays silent and pretty on the arm of her husband. Or remote and alone in the kitchen -doing the washing up, for that matter.

Young Denis Thatcher: [Interrupts] I'm going to help with that...

Young Margaret Thatcher: No. One's life must matter, Dennis. Beyond all the cooking and the cleaning and the children. One's life must mean more than that. I cannot die washing up a teacup! I mean it, Dennis. Say you understand.

Young Denis Thatcher: That's why I want to marry you, my dear.
I also like when they go to the opera, and he gives her a little pink fake mouse.

Later, when she's running for office, the members of parliament who served as her campaign managers are very encouraging!

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Liz Lemon, and how to get more female leaders in technology

Once I asked Kai-fu Lee whether he agreed that sexism is more rampant in Chinese professional settings, and what he thought would be the way to fix it.

He said that making sexist comments is still socially acceptable to a greater degree in China. The way to reduce sexism in society is to make those jokes socially unacceptable. At first, people only curb what they say on the outside, and they still think the same sexist thoughts on the inside. But gradually, over time, the mental attitudes change also.

I really agreed with this. If you make an overtly sexist joke in the US, most people will shift uncomfortably and won't find it funny. After this happens a few times, people become trained to stop making those jokes.  Altering how people talk, even when joking, is the first step to substantial societal change.

Recently a journalist asked me what I think is the best way to encourage women into senior positions in the field of technology. I said the most effective step would be to have female leaders who are compelling Hollywood characters on television and film. I'd like to see fully fleshed-out characters of female executives.

Once people get used to respecting the fictional characters, thinking about them, even using them as a role model, it will speed up the societal shift in thinking.

Liz Lemon from 30 Rock is a great example of a female leader on a modern television show. She is complex, lovable, and extremely competent. I would enjoy working with her or for her. If we could get some characters like her in the field of technology, I think that would do a lot.

By comparison, the Star Trek female captain on Voyager was highly irritating. Most people disliked her. She was night and day from the respectable and intriguing character of Jean-Luc Picard, or Captain Sisko on Deep Space Nine. Looking at this picture, I just realized the two bald captains were the best ones. I'm sure that advanced the cause of the bald anti-discrimination movement!

i imagined the two hills as hobbit hills

Talking over dinner to my friend Top, who I have known for 15 years.

Me: "I got into an argument with X over email.  It was stressful.  [more details about the argument]"

Top: "In these situations, I aim to re-iterate what our common goals are.  There are probably a lot more goals you share in common, than goals that conflict with each other."

Me: "True.  I did spend part of the email validating her goals.  But that was the third paragraph, after I spent two long paragraphs expounding on my goals.  Also the third paragraph was much shorter.  I probably should have opened with the third paragraph."

Top: "When we're each standing on a hill, and you want me to go over to your hill, the best way is to come walk over to me, and then say, 'Hey, let's walk together to my hill.'"


Top: "If you just stand on your hill and shout, 'Hey!  Come over here!', that doesn't work.  I don't want to hear you yelling at me.  I'm very comfortable here on my hill.  But if you come over to me, now I know that you see what my hill is about.  And you can see what your hill looks like from the perspective of standing on my hill.  So now I'm much more willing to walk with you to see your hill."

Me: "Wow, that is really well-stated."

Monday, March 25, 2013

car loyalty

I really like my car.  I've only ever purchased one car in my life (in 1999), and it is very reliable, so I have no intention of replacing it for years to come.  People at Google started making fun of my car in 2006.  I still have the same car.

Today I got an email about carpooling to an investor event 3 hours away.

In the evening, I was talking to my brother (in town for Game Developers Conference).

Me: "This carpooling guy is the CEO of a cool company, and says his all-electric car can't make it the whole distance.  So he probably drives a Tesla.  Do you think I should set his expectations that I drive a 14-year-old Honda Civic?"

Brother: [grinning] "No.  But you should tell me what happens."

Me: "There are going to be various problems.  Like, he'll want to plug in his iPhone.  Or he'll want to open the trunk using the remote."

Brother: "If he complains, just say, 'Why didn't we take your car?  Oh wait, we can't.'"

Me: "Ha, okay."

Brother: "You just assume he drives a Tesla.  Maybe he drives a 1994 Honda Civic, and he'll be really excited about your newer model of Civic."

Me: "I don't think there's an all-electric 1994 Civic, but that's a good thought."

Sunday, March 24, 2013


I am finally taking my dad on a trip to Russia, this May.

This was an item on my original bucket list. After this, the only non-completed bucket list item will be "have a family", which I probably will not get to for a little while.

My dad is a history buff and especially likes World War II sites.  He loved the Churchill Museum in London.  He knows many stories that are not in the history books or museums.

He told me a story of how Churchill was rushing to the radio station to broadcast a Fireside Chat. There were no cabs on the street, because everyone was at home in front of the radio. He finally flagged down a taxi. The driver said he was not taking any passengers. Churchill didn't want to reveal his identity. He kept offering the driver more and more money, until finally they guy said, "All right, to hell with Churchill! I'll take you where you want to go."

My dad is making flashcards to review the Russian he learned during his college years.

I am most excited about:

The Kremlin
  Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg
  Moscow metro stations
  Church of the Savior

Where else should we go?

A while ago, I sent a 9gag joke to a Russian friend:

Russian friend: "Got to play to your strengths."

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Hogwash about slower learning as we age

I just saw this tweet from Paris Hilton.

It reminded me of when I was a little girl (5-7 years old), and adults would say: "I wish I could learn X (piano / foreign language / math) but I am too old now and cannot learn as fast as I used to."

I became very afraid of this aging process that would rob me of my memory and capacity to learn.

Well, now I am close to the age of those adults when they said this, and it was not true at all!  It was all nonsense.  If anything, I am better now at learning, because I know how to mix breadth and depth, and when to read a book vs practice the activity hands-on vs watch a lecture on the subject.

My memory is only worse in that I sometimes have interference.  I used to scan a file of code and rely that I could remember all the variable names and constants.  Now I get confused between the code I just scanned vs code I scanned in the past, so it is a bit harder if I just do it offhandedly.  But if I concentrate, my memory is just as good as before.

I also remember being on a recruiting trip for Google in China, and a young female student asking me with sincerity, "We all know women's memories become a lot worse at age 30, so should I still go into programming, knowing that I'll be unable to keep up with new technologies in a decade?"  I was outraged at the time, but I was not yet 30, so I could not completely debunk it.  Now I am over 30 and can definitively say that was hogwash!

Women have also told me that their memories got worse after having a child.  I have not had one yet, but when I do, I'll be sure to update and reject that one too.

All that fear-mongering for nothing!  Why do we do this to ourselves?

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Cupcakes at work

Some of the engineering team at Minted are really into baking.

Cupcakes with chocolate-dust covering them.  The items in the little pots are cupcakes!  On the same day, a different engineer brought cookies and professional cupcakes (in the box in the background).

Green tea macaroons with white-chocolate filling.

A new Director of PM (from StubHub) just joined.  His first week was one of our most prolific baked-goods week, and we had something delicious almost every day.  On two of the days, multiple people brought in independent goodies.  The new PM director asked me multiple times with consternation, "Is this how it usually is?"  I could see him worrying about his waistline.  Hehe.

I felt like this:

Monday, March 04, 2013

reasons for working obsessively

James, Milli, and I have been debating whether it's helpful for startup founders to work obsessively, i.e. more than 65 hours per week.

Milli's stance is that people with no balance in their lives will be less inspiring as leaders, and also lack the perspective to make the best decisions.  He thinks founders should get a hobby, and do something at least one evening per week besides work.

I think there are a few reasons why people might work obsessively:

1. They find it fulfilling
2. They read an article or listened to a luminary talk about working all the time
3. They feel obligated to do it, to encourage others on the team to do it
4. They feel that it's a necessary sprint to prevent the company from failing

Of these, I only support #1 and #4.

To expand on #1, "fulfilling" is different from "enjoyable" or "pleasant".  If you set out to climb Mount Everest, there will be times when it is extremely unenjoyable.  You will hate your life at that moment, and wonder what possessed you to embark on such a stupid quest.  You will be angry at all the people around you.  But you press on because you have a tiny core deep-down that remembers this is a fulfilling activity.

When you summit, you are filled with a sense of awe-struck achievement, and it's all worthwhile.

Most of work is like that.  If your work is ambitious, there are moments that are grueling.  But there is a tiny core that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other, because you remember the mission was worthwhile.

The #4 reason is self-explanatory.

I think #2 and #3 are not good reasons.  Doing things because someone else said so will end in resentment and regret, no matter how well-known that person is.  At the end of the day, they're not going to be the ones reflecting on whether your time was well-spent.

We all have a voice of inner truth, deep down.  When we are quiet, we can hear the voice.  Sometimes the voice has been visited by a muse and wants to capture every minute of inspiration by working, before the muse flits off and we are mortals again.  Other times, the voice needs to go in search of the muse by absorbing new inputs or taking a break from the problems we've mentally rehashed endlessly. Listen to the voice.


Thursday, February 28, 2013

Server room

We have a closet at Minted used for Internet cabling and to store a server rack. I started using it for phone calls, when all other conference rooms are full.

Before I knew it, others started using it too.

Yesterday I walked in to find four chairs and a standing desk.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


I really agree with the management style described in this article: The Sinatra of Southwest Feels the Love:

When Mr. Kelleher, 77, entered the main meeting room, shareholders gave him the kind of standing ovation usually reserved for rock stars. The Southwest pilots union is also in the process of negotiating a new contract with management. But not only did the Southwest pilots not set up a picket line, they took out a full page ad in USA Today thanking Mr. Kelleher for all he had done. “The pilots of Southwest Airlines want to express our sentiment to Herb that it has been an honor and a privilege to be a part of his aviation legacy,” said the union president, Carl Kowitzky, in a statement.

When he brought up the pilots ad — and when he talked about how much the company’s employees meant to him — he wept. “I’m Lucky Herbie for having all of these years with all of you,” he said. More than a few people in the audience wept right along with him. 

No surprise there, either. Over the years, whenever reporters would ask him the secret to Southwest’s success, Mr. Kelleher had a stock response. “You have to treat your employees like customers,” he told Fortune in 2001. “When you treat them right, then they will treat your outside customers right. That has been a powerful competitive weapon for us.”

“We’ve never had layoffs,” he told me the day before the annual meeting, sitting on the couch of the single messiest executive office I’ve ever seen. “We could have made more money if we furloughed people. But we don’t do that. And we honor them constantly. Our people know that if they are sick, we will take care of them. If there are occasions or grief or joy, we will be there with them. They know that we value them as people, not just cogs in a machine.”

When you look at a company like American, with its poisonous employee relations and its glum customer base, and compare it with Southwest, with its happy employees and contented customers, you can’t help thinking that Mr. Kelleher was on to something when he put employees first. “There isn’t any customer satisfaction without employee satisfaction,” said Gordon Bethune, the former chief executive of Continental Airlines, and an old friend of Mr. Kelleher’s. “He recognized that good employee relations would affect the bottom line. He knew that having employees who wanted to do a good job would drive revenue and lower costs.”

I agree that the ingredients to produce devotion in your employees are:

  1. clear goals with metrics, that people are held accountable for achieving
  2. love 
  3. joy and a spirit of lightheartedness

From wikipedia:
During his tenure as CEO of Southwest, Kelleher's colorful personality created a corporate culture which made Southwest employees well known for taking themselves lightly—often singing in-flight announcements to the tune of popular theme songs—but their jobs seriously. Southwest has never had an in-flight fatality. Southwest is consistently named among the top five Most Admired Corporations in America in Fortune magazine's annual poll. Fortune has also called him perhaps the best CEO in America.

Toppled by my own success!

Usually when I try to grow plants, I get very emotionally attached, but they die.

One Christmas-time when my brother came to visit, we had this exchange:

Me: "Tom, can you do me a favor?  I want you to throw this dead plant away.  [point at plant]  But I'm very sad about it, so I don't want you to tell me when you've done it.  Just do it quietly when I'm not looking, and then put the empty pot in the corner.  I don't want to talk about it again."

Tom: "Okay."

Later that weekend, I noticed that the plant was gone, and the empty pot was in the corner.

Photo of a representative plant.

The next day, I had a few people over for dinner.  Linda brought over a tiny potted spruce.  My brother took one look at the hopeful little spruce, and said with a sigh, "Well, I know what I'll be doing on my next trip to San Fran!"

The only exception were my succulents.  My realtor friend gave them to me, and they grew bigger every week.  I am so proud of them!  I love them dearly.

They got bigger and bigger, and then I came home yesterday to find this:


They got too big for their home.  A success problem!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Must strong people have strong weaknesses?

"Strong people have strong weaknesses.  Where there are peaks, there are valleys."
             - Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

A few of us at Minted are reading the book "The Effective Executive".  Drew Houston recommended it when he did a fireside chat at our office.  The book contains the quote above.  It has some examples of people who were alcoholic or threw frequent tantrums, but still was the best person at one core part of their job. It goes on to suggest that you ignore the weaknesses in that case.

I agree that if the most effective candidate has major flaws, you should still pick that person over a mediocre candidate with no flaws.

However, I think it'd be better if the super-effective candidate can get over their alcoholism or tantrums, so that they are even more effective.  The book thinks this is unrealistic.

It's true that the famous visionary leaders (Jobs, Gates) are singlemindedly bent on fulfilling their vision, even at the cost of treating people poorly.  There are stories of Jobs firing people in the elevator, and Gates making people cry ("That was the stupidest thing I've ever heard.  What school did you go to?  We're never hiring from there again.")  This book implies that this is to be expected.  But is that really true?

Steve Lawrence, who I worked with for a year at Google, is pretty phenomenal and does not have weaknesses that are the same magnitude as his strengths.  Also Jeff Dean, Omst, and many other people.

I wonder if it's actually that strong people can often get away with having strong weaknesses.  Chris Brown can get away with smashing Rihanna's face into his car -- his records are still selling.  So he is not forced to shape up.

I hope there aren't strong leaders who were debating whether to do the hard work to mitigate their alcoholism / tantrums, and then read this book and decided not to.

Monday, February 18, 2013

oh snap! meteroid

Skype chat at work, with my tech ops manager.

E: "The pope resigning, fire from the sky, and now M [Minted colleague -- adamant Outlook user] wanting to use Gmail.  Yup, it's official, the end is nigh."

Niniane: "Fire from the sky?"

E: "Aliens attacking Russia.  Oh, sure, the so-called 'mainstream media' says it's a meteroid."

Niniane: "It's Aaron Swartz."

Niniane: "Too soon?"

E: "He missed the lawyer by a few thousand miles."

Sunday, February 17, 2013

moving forward with tiny steps

There was a woman at the Google gym who had lost 50 pounds.  Every time I went to exercise, I saw her there.  She must have gone to the gym almost daily.

One day, I finally said to her in the locker room, "I'm really impressed at how often you work out."

She said, "My goal is to lose 100 pounds.  I have 50 more pounds to go."

The most impressive thing is that she was able to go every day, even though any given day makes little perceptible difference.  You don't see additional muscle tone or increased endurance after a workout.  It's only weeks and months later that the accumulation shows its effects.

It is the same way with work.  Every day you make steps forward with your company, product, team.  But even though you're putting in work, the outside world only notices every so often.  For some of the startups I'm advising, there's no external validation for a long time, until one day they've built up enough valuable work, and then the world takes notice.

Because you don't see immediate results, I find there are only three ways to motivate yourself on any given day:
1. Love what you are doing
2. Have enormous willpower
3. Get someone else to pay attention to you and tell you how great you're doing

With exercising, I rely on #3.  I see a personal trainer.  Occasionally I go to exercise classes.

With work, I rely on #1.  As a result, I only work on products that I love, with people I love.

I mentally debate whether #2 is worthwhile.  Is it valuable to build up your willpower?  Isn't it more efficient to just divert more resources into #1 and #3?  Let's say you hate going to the gym.  Why not find enjoyable alternatives (sports) and people to go with you, rather than relying on willpower?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

An eloquent quote about programming

I was searching for an email, and came across these well-written paragraphs from an old friend.

It was in reply to an email I sent, about a weekend on a houseboat. There were a number of other engineers there, from Google and other companies. Some of them were jostling to determine who was smarter than whom, or a better programmer.

From my friend:

"Good programmers realize that programming is hard. We are all struggling along together or separately. We do the best we can with the limited brains we have. Dominance games are for the insecure, the incompetent, and the ignorant.

"Given human nature, I think those people will always be with us. All we can ask is to be in a place where good ideas and true ability and hard work can prove themselves without needing to play those games. And call me naive, but I really do think that for all the bluster of the echo chamber, that Silicon Valley really is such a place, and that's really why we're all here."

It is uplifting to read again, even years later. I am idealistic too.

still works, unless your handles clash

My friend Melbs says about relationships, "Every pot has a lid."  It means that no matter how weird you are, there is someone out there who will fit well with you.

I told this to James, who said, "What if you're a pot that likes other pots?"

Thursday, February 14, 2013

drama! electric cars! logs!

This Tesla vs New York Times scandal is one of the best things I've ever read.

1. John Broder of the NYTimes writes a scathing article.
2. Elon Musk personally posts on the Tesla blog, calling him out for lying, with logs data.
3. John Broder does a point-by-point rebuttal.

Elon Musk of Tesla: A Most Peculiar Test Drive
When he first reached our Milford, Connecticut Supercharger, having driven the car hard and after taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, the display said "0 miles remaining." Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in. On the later legs, it is clear Broder was determined not to be foiled again.
We assumed that the reporter would be fair and impartial, as has been our experience with The New York Times, an organization that prides itself on journalistic integrity. As a result, we did not think to read his past articles and were unaware of his outright disdain for electric cars. We were played for a fool and as a result, let down the cause of electric vehicles. For that, I am deeply sorry.

John Broder's response: That Tesla Data: What It Says and What It Doesn't
I drove around the Milford service plaza in the dark looking for the Supercharger, which is not prominently marked. I was not trying to drain the battery. (It was already on reserve power.) As soon as I found the Supercharger, I plugged the car in.

Who doesn't love a good fight with logs data, eloquent accusations of lying, and driving an electric vehicle in circles at night?

abnormal dreams

Two years ago, there was a sysadmin candidate that was introduced to me for Minted.  He came with great references and a solid resume.  Due to being gated on another decision, we delayed a few weeks in getting back to him, and of course by then, he was snatched up by another company.  He was very polite in letting me know that we were a few days too late.

This is all very normal.  The abnormal thing is that I then obsessed over this lost candidate for over a month.  I spent hours lamenting this candidate I had never actually met.  

Eventually I realized that I was doing this as an escape fantasy to avoid the harsh reality that I still had to hire someone and it was tough to find someone good. 

Last week, I caught myself doing it again with another person.  I conjured up an entire blissful working relationship in my head, only to find that it did not match the person's real-life interests at all.

I am wondering if this is the dark side to having an active imagination.  Maybe it is the side effect to the skill we cultivate by looking at a blank terminal window and imagining a beautiful framework of code.

I think companies do this too.  They imagine a partnership with another company, and fuel it on dreams instead of day-to-day reality of how well the technology integrates.  They pin their hopes on unlikely PR blitzes instead of repeatable user acquisition.

The only way I have found to cure this is to spend time getting to know the situation (or candidate) with all their foibles and flaws.  Nothing kills daydreams like cold facts.

The sysadmin story ended happily.  A month later, we hired someone amazing and my baseless obsession went away immediately.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Four rings to rule them all

A great image:

The caption says "One does not simply walk into Mordor."

James: It looks like it's driving away from Mordor. Mission accomplished?

Tom: Cool cars never look back at explosions.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Starcraft Thursday

We have been playing Starcraft at Minted the past couple of Thursdays.

M: Is there any interest in playing Team Fortress 2 tomorrow night in addition to starcraft?

S: I'm pretty awesome at Temple Run but have never played TF2, I'm assuming the skills with transfer across easily, right?

M: Temple run is essentially an iOS port of Team Fortress 2.  You will be fine.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

idealism and good text-to-speech

I am very impressed by the quality of the text-to-speech in this video.  It is from the group Anonymous, on behalf of Aaron Swartz.

I think of Anonymous as a no-nonsense group, but in this and related videos, they show a lot of empathy.  They call Aaron an angel and a fallen brother.  They apologize to his family for having attracted Westboro Church to plan a picket protest at Aaron's funeral.  The narration in the videos are eloquently written.

I also really like the time-lapse imagery they used.

I really respect Aaron Swartz for spending a good part of his recent years in furthering internet freedom.  It is ennobling to see.  Tech media can sometimes be dominated by money-driven headlines: who got funded by how much, who exited for what price, who IPO'ed at what value.  It is nice to see people working toward a mission they believe in.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

compare down

At survival school, they taught us to compare down.

Let's say it's very cold and you are sleeping on the ground, on a bed of pine needles.  You are shivering.  If you think to yourself, "I could be at the Four Seasons right now", you're going to feel depressed.  But if you think "At least it's not raining", then you'll feel better.

I was pretty good about doing this at survival school.  It rained for 16 hours during my first day of solo, and I reflected on the relief that I made the tree shelter before washing clothes, so the shelter was ready by the time it started to rain.

It is a good thing to remember in our modern world!