My Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving

You might be wondering how I can post about having hosted Thanksgiving in the middle of November. Although it is true that I am Canadian, that isn’t the reason this time. Actually, Zanbato has an annual tradition of holding a team Thanksgiving a week or two before actual Thanksgiving, where we can share (hopefully) delicious food and get an early start on the holiday season feeling.

Last year, I did an ethnic twist and made it a Chinese Thanksgiving, with the turkey cooked in the style of Peking duck and with various Asian-themed sides. This year, I did a Tex-Mex Thanksgiving, and I dare say it went quite well. Here are pictures of how the food turned out (recipes available on foodmarks):

Overall, I think most of the dishes came out quite well. The pecan pie had some baking issues but ended up tasting fine. As gratifying as that is, however, I think the best part of the experience for me was how smoothly it went. In years past, I have been frantically cooking up to the last minute with pots and pans and kitchen tools scattered around my kitchen. This year, I cooked at a leisurely pace and was able to pop in and out of the kitchen when guests arrived. I ended up only needing Julie’s help for the last 15 minutes or so, and everything came out on-time. Here is what I think the difference was:

1. I picked recipes that that don’t need to be done right before serving.

A lot of dishes must be served fresh, or they lose their texture or temperature or flavor. When I picked the dishes, I deliberately picked dishes that could be done ahead of time so I didn’t need to do 5 things right before serving dinner. I think it was also important to do desserts that didn’t need prep, either. Both the pecan pie and flan basically needed to be paired with a serving utensil, and they were ready.

2. I threw in a couple gimme recipes as well.

At some point, I realized that it wasn’t worth putting a lot of work into baking things for most people. Most people don’t really care if you spent hours putting together a layer cake or swirling a batter in a certain way: they’re usually just happy that you did something homemade. This probably extends to cooking in general, so I put queso on the list as a great but very easy appetizer dip and salad. These buff out the menu without significant work.

3. I planned out my oven and stove usage.

It’s a bad surprise to find out that you need your veggies at 400 F and dessert at 350 F at the same time in the oven, or that you have to use the big saute pan for two things. I charted out my oven usage by the half-hour to make sure that I could get everything done, with some wiggle room as well

4. I setup my place during downtime.

Were I better prepared, the furniture, cleanup, and flatware would have been done ahead of time. I wasn’t that prepared, but I did manage to knock out a lot of that while the turkey was cooking. Although most of my attention is on the food, a good dinner party should have a good environment as well.

5. I took notes from last year.

I pulled up my recipes from last year to see approximately how much food I made for how many people, and I went over the mistakes from last time. There was a lot to learn.

Overall, I would say that the big takeaway here is: don’t leave anything to the last minute. Having a plan is good. Having experience to know what needs to be planned is better. With that in mind, I was able to put together a good experience for my guests without getting frazzled myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if this advice doesn’t really extend much past myself or perhaps is too obvious, but hopefully I’ll continue to improve as a Thanksgiving host in the coming years!

“Interstellar” Review

Christopher Nolan has directed and written a lot of enjoyable movies: Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and all of the new Batman movies. If you have loved his previous movies but are skeptical about him making a space movie, I can assure you that Interstellar has that same Nolan touch should you know and love it.

Interstellar is set in the not so far future where the “Blight” has destroyed many crops on Earth, and it seems that the planet can no longer support human life. Matthew McConaughey is a former pilot and farmer who comes across an opportunity to explore other planets for a new home for humanity. Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway are in supporting roles (along with a few robots offering some levity in an otherwise serious film), and Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain play the young and older versions of McConaughey’s daughter. Sorry, I can’t offer more details: I’m not sure what might count as a spoiler because I knew close to nothing going in.

Although we’re seeing a second wind of geeky genres with superhero movies, more Planet of the Apes, and Star Trek, I think they have relied heavily on action, whereas Interstellar is some hard science fiction. They are a few strange moments when the script is obviously explaining topics to the audience, but the physics involved are about as good as fiction gets, and they’re used effectively in the story. Particularly, time dilation is a major plot device: due to the influence of gravity, time can move at different speeds for different people, and the characters have to both reason given this fact and react to its effects.

The effects are the most interesting in a personal realm because the story hinges on the relationship between McConaughey and his daughter and love overall. Although it may seem hokey, the story effectively uses the physics and action as a vehicle for exploring human relationships, which gets quite intense. Despite the sometimes far-flung premises for science fiction, much of the best work manages to tie the themes back to something more visceral for us mundane viewers.

Overall, I thought the cast performed quite well. I can’t say I’m that critical, both McConaughey and Hathaway bring a lot of emotion to their roles, and I didn’t have any issues fitting them into their respective roles (despite the fact that I can’t remember any characters names). Visually, Nolan used both great special effects as well as actual locations to make everything believable. From sandy cornfields to outer space to exotic planets, there was a good mix of environments, which he certainly provides time to enjoy. The soundtrack included epic music appropriate for the moment, with an organ adding depth and suspense at the right moments.

My critiques are few but should also be familiar for a Nolan movie. The movie is long at almost 3 hours, and when you fact in my earlier point about a shift from action sci-fi to hard sci-fi, you can imagine how that might feel. And although I enjoyed the music, the dialogue was a bit difficult to make out at times, though I think better than Bane’s from The Dark Knight Rises.

I hadn’t seen the Rotten Tomatoes score beforehand, and looking at it, I can see that it wasn’t as universally beloved as other Nolan movies. If you think you’re into the premise and director, however, don’t let the score dissuade you. Remember, it’s a measure of consensus, not absolute quality. Interstellar is entirely representative of both Nolan’s style and hard sci-fi with just the right personal touch to make it enjoyable on intellectual, dramatic, and emotional levels.

 

Beware: Spoilers Ahead as I share a few of my thoughts on the plot!

 

 

Can someone remind me why they leave Romilly and the Endurance outside of the influence of Gargantua on the tidal planet? When he had explicit instructions to stay for them, I think it would have made more sense for him to go in as well.

So for their time travel version, everything has already happened on a single timeline and can’t be changed. I think it’s interesting that they don’t explore the lack of free will that this model of free will entails. It probably would be a distraction given the real themes of the movie, but it felt lacking in retrospect.

At the end, was humanity headed towards Edmunds’s world? McConaughey is presumably headed there, but since he had to escape to do it, I’m not sure if that was the game plan for everyone else, too.

The speech that Anne Hathaway gives to Matthew McConaughey about the power of love to transcend everything seemed hokey to me. I can see how that comes back around in the movie, but I think the emotion and presentation (which was quite good) doesn’t really match the hedge I would like to give it from a scientific perspective. That part felt more new-agey to me than any other.

Well, I guess there was the whole thing about the power of connection over generations and something about how that was the only thing to persist past death. I’m not really sure I buy that either. As Matt Damon was talking through it, I didn’t have any counter-examples, but it felt like an argument that was driven by force of will rather than a reasonable opportunity to argue against it. I would have to watch it again to come up with something.

And does CASE or TARS stand for anything?

My Pivot Away from Video Game RPGs

A few weeks ago, I started playing Mass Effect 2 and was instantly sucked into it. Well, instantly after playing the initial, 15 minute, unskippable cut scene sequence 3 or 4 times because I couldn’t get the controller working in Windows properly. Anyways, I was instantly sucked into the giant universe and cinematic feel. I knew there was an epic story ahead for me to be invested in. Within 2 weeks and maybe 4 hours of gameplay, however, I was over it.

Despite having grown up on computer role-playing games (RPGs), I have been turned off by them recently. RPGs are different from strict action or adventure games in that the player character grows stronger over the course of the game. Games typically accomplish this with either an experience or loot system. Along the way, an overarching plot and a variety of side quests fill out the game.

Recently, I have found myself wanting more out of the story and my investment into my character. Instead, I have found most games to be a grind, which I quickly become bored of. Today, consumers expect at least 30 hours of gameplay out of RPGs, and although developers do their best to vary the content, most of it ends up being somewhat similar. To contrast, a season of a TV show may not even last 20 hours, and there’s plenty of filler in that.

It’s interesting how increased player choices also seems to decrease variability in games. I have 2 examples in mind. First, many RPGs allow players to pick one of a few possible playable classes, each with different gameplay strategies, such as brawlers, snipers, magic users, etc. This choice, however, means that enemies and encounters must be designed in a way that allows different techniques for success. And the easiest way to do this is to make all enemies bland since unique challenges would be imbalanced against different classes.

The second example is the open-world RPG, where the player is allowed to roam around a big world and loosely follow their own path through the story. Although it sounds liberating, the lack of “railroading” means that game developers have to account for a lot of different cases. Again, the result typically isn’t detail into specific encounters and enemies: the content instead ends up being generic so that all paths end up roughly the same.

The last point I’ll make is that the RPG and action genres have crossed over in modern action RPGs like Diablo and first-person RPGs like Borderlands, which really mix the genres up. Again, I have found these games something of a grind because they usually based on similar, known gameplay and interfaces (FPS or clickfests) but also mix in extended game content through grinding for experience or equipment.

Of course, these are all opinions based on my changing preferences in games. I once was happy to spend night after night running the same Diablo 2 boss to hopefully get loot. Nowadays, I’m looking to get the most story per hour of gameplay and cut out the grind. Although I appreciate the cinematic feel of AAA roleplaying games, they are hard to justify the hours spent compared to, say, reading a book or watching a movie if I wanted a story.

In writing this post, I have realized I should be playing more adventure games. They’re usually tighter and closer to 10-15 hours and have some novel gameplay. And they’re made for the story instead of trying to just generate content for one to grow and grind through.

I have Alan Wake on steam: I’ll give that a shot and follow up on how that goes.

My Apple Event Reactions

The Apple event yesterday unveiled the iPhone 6, Apple Pay, and the Apple Watch, which might be the biggest Apple announcement since the iPad. This event was big for me, however, because it was the first iPhone event after getting one myself, which finally gave me the experience of, “I gotta get me one of those.”

The previous 7 iPhone announcements were less meaningful to me since I had no basis of comparison. They looked cool, but all of them were well-beyond my flip phone. Looking at the new features and specs of the iPhone 6, however, I could feel how these improvements would change my life, despite my light usage of my current phone. It’s thinner. It has better battery life. The camera is fancier and stabilized in ways I don’t understand. It uses technology to make phone calls better, apparently. What’s not to love?

This has led me to the same crisis as every other iPhone user has experienced for many years before me of how to reconcile my desire for something new and shiny with the reality of an existing contract and the fact that I still have it pretty good with a 1 year old phone. It still feels new to me.

So I turn towards sour grapes to resolve the dissonance. Well, my current phone is better anyways. The new form factor is too big. My phone is already bigger than it probably needs to be, and the bigger screen would just frustrate my pockets. And I would be so worried about breaking the new phone that I couldn’t really use it to its full capacity. Things are totally better this way.

But if the apple fairy came into my house at night and swapped my iPhone 5S for an iPhone 6, would I be okay with that? Heck yes.

The Apple Pay thing was cool, but I think the real target of the event was the Apple Watch. After having talked to various people over the past day, it seems like opinions are spread, but the median is negative. It’s too expensive. It’s probably limited by phone tethering. It looks too big. It looks too small. It’s too rectangular.

I myself am more positive on it than not. With the caveat that I am incapable of dressing myself (Julie does that for me) and don’t have any sense for fashion, this watch looks like something that people would want to wear. It offers customizability in something that one presents as part of their image constantly, and I think people care about that sort of thing.

I’m also not worried about the price point: Apple is snobby, and those unwilling to pay will have to wait for the price to drop, which I believe it will. For a completely new product, however, Apple has priced it high enough to detract people from using it just to give it a hard time. Only the rich and Apple fanboys will buy it, and that will give it snob appeal and positive user reviews regardless of the true experience. Apple seems to do a good job refining products, and I think the next iteration will improve while keeping the brand intact.

Of course, I’m not planning on getting one, but I’m excited to see how it goes. Detractors mentioned how derivative this product is and how other, cheaper products provide better, targeted experiences. I have to admit that I myself was hoping for something more exotic. Maybe it could have been something implanted in one’s chest like Tony Stark’s reactor, or something similarly mind-blowing. But it’s just a watch, and I think people will be more than happy with that anyways.

A brief history of my TODO list

I’m obsessed with staying organized. I know how often I don’t commit something to memory or forget later, and I see life as a constant struggle against the chaos and idleness of disorganization. Having a system seems to be the key, and when everything can seemingly be solved with software, there’s an app for that. As such, I thought I would share a brief history into my own system.

The Folder

Until I got to college, I didn’t have a system. I think we were required to have organizers and time trackers during primary and secondary school, but I never really used any of that. In retrospect, it’s astounding how much effort teachers put into teaching us reasonable skills (like time and task management), which we completely missed because we were some combination of not busy, conscientious, or understanding enough of why we should do it.

Regardless, I went through the motions as much as required but never really used any of that. All I had was a single, usually plastic, two-pocket folder. I had to carry binders of notes, spirals, time trackers, and whatever else, but the only thing that actually mattered was in that folder. At a time where most tasks were homework, which was often a piece of paper, it was an easy way to keep track of everything. Fill the folder over the course of the day, then empty it as I completed things.

I’m not quite sure how I factored studying for tests into that system, but when calendars only had to be scheduled at most a week out, it didn’t really matter. It was a simple system, but it worked because the scope was so small. In truth, my teachers, education system, and parents really kept track of anything important. They doled out my tasks and calendar in bite-size pieces that were easily represented with a folder.

OSX Stickies

When I got to college, I started using the Stickies widget on the OSX dashboard page. Presumably, the change of context from high school to college rendered the folder ineffective. I’m guessing I developed the habit when I started putting my random addresses into Stickies and evolved random notes into a single, very long TODO sticky note. Despite being somewhat rudimentary, it was effective for planning out when I would have to study for one class or work on an assignment for another.

I was extremely reliant on it. When my motherboard died, I wasn’t worried about any documents on my computer: the most important thing was recovering my Stickies so I wouldn’t drop anything within the week. Overall, it is perhaps the closest to a true TODO list as I have ever used: it had few recurring tasks and could easily be populated and scheduled out to about a a week. During college, most of my tasks were still relatively short-term and could easily be accommodated in this system.

Evernote

Towards the end of college when I started working, I switched over to Evernote. I became an Evernote fan as a way to collect my dozens of random text documents on my computer, but it became the right TODO list tool because it was portable. When I had a work computer and a personal computer, I couldn’t sync up the Stickies widget, so I couldn’t do things or add tasks while at work.

The portability brought me over, but it was the checkboxes that kept me. As I transitioned into real life with errands and chores, I developed more recurring tasks, which I could check and un-check as necessary. This evolved into the regular TODO list, which I previously described. In brief, I divided up tasks into daily, weekly, monthly, and irregular tasks, and managed it in a single note.

Asana

My Evernote system was good and probably sustainable if I hadn’t found a better task management tool in Asana within the past few months. Evernote is more of a swiss army knife, where Asana was built specifically for task management in mind. I started using it because unlike Evernote, it works with other people. I started recording tasks around the house with Julie, but I instantly became a fan of the system. It reminded me of the issue tracking system I use at work, except it stripped away a lot of the doctrine and boilerplate to make it very simple to add, organize, and complete tasks.

It was easy to transition everything, and it allows me to set tasks to repeat. This was particularly helpful for my regular TODO list: instead of having to reset at the end of every period, it resets on completion and files it away until that day comes up. Even better, it has the due date so I can see how many days I have skipped on a daily task (usually exercise).

I think there are a few other nice features to it that I’m not recalling at the moment, but ignoring the details, I think everyone should be using Asana. I honestly don’t get how any adult can get away without a task management system, and Asana makes it so easy for both personal and team use. With a task management system, it’s hard to guiltlessly fail to do something: there’s a task that won’t go away until it is completed.

The Future?

One of my coworkers shared Bullet Journal with me, and she was right because conceptually, I love it. I love it because it’s an organization system. Moreover, it has 2 characteristics which I feel are missing.

First, it’s analog. Despite everything about my life, I still fancy myself a luddite and pretend like things would be better without computers. There’s something still satisfying about having a system in pen and paper.

Second, it has history. This blog and my advocacy for journaling are both symptoms of my interesting in recording my life. I have at various times tried to maintain lists of books I have read, events I have gone to, movies I have watched, and music I have been into, but none of it really stuck. All of it was more work than seemed immediately worthwhile. Having that documentation built into my regular flow sounds really nice, especially if it’s private and analog.

So I’m not sure what’s next, but at the current pace, in at most 3 years, I will have a new system because it satisfies some new requirement. Looking at my history, it seems that each change came about by a larger change in my life: first college, then work, then moving out.  I’m not sure what is happening in 3 years, but I’m sure I’ll need something different.

Our Stanford Football Traditions

This past weekend, college football season returned, and as a loyal Stanford football fan, I had my season tickets to show up to our 45-0 walloping of UC Davis in sweltering heat (by our Northern California standards) with 49,000 fans in attendance. It’s exciting to be back.

Maybe it has always been like this, but it seems like college football is currently under a lot of scrutiny for policies, including NCAA abusing its privilege, unionization and pay for student-athletes, corporate interests and structure of post-season bowl/tournament play, concerns over the health of players, and more. As a guy who just wants to root for his own team, however, I scuttle past that just to enjoy the experience. When I interact with a limited number of people on a daily basis, it’s a big change to have a regular event in the fall to participate in something bigger.

Furthermore, sports breed traditions, rituals, and superstitions. From the individual to the local group to the community levels, we construct our own experiences, and I thought I would share a few from my group of game-attending friends.

Not Tailgating

Maybe this will change this season, but we don’t tailgate. As a student, I was never a member of a group that did tailgate, so that tradition never carried over for me. Seeing as it’s a great American tradition, however, I wonder whether our gameday experience would be enhanced by it.

The Michael Thomas Play of the Game

Michael Thomas is a recently-graduated Stanford alumnus who now plays as a safety (defense who stands in the back) for the Dolphins. He’s made it to play in the NFL, and he was good for us too, but what I best remember from him was his penchant for running with dead balls. In football, the defense can pick up dropped balls and run in the opposite direction to score, but only if the play isn’t already declared over. There’s a little bit of wiggle room, but Thomas had a generous interpretation and would take off with balls on obviously dead plays. It worked just often enough (see Stanford-UCLA 2010) to reinforce this belief, but it often looked ridiculous. As such, we have come to naming the “Michael Thomas Play of the Game” when a Stanford defensive player picks up and runs with an obviously dead ball.

Imitating the Quarterback Audible

When the offense sets their formation, the quarterback will often take a look at the defensive formation and may choose to change the play at that time. This is called an audible. Different quarterbacks indicate it differently, but our favorite comes from Stanford, when the quarterback yells something like, “Kill kill kill!” and does a strange sort of chicken flapping action with elbows and arms tucked in, hands pointing out from the shoulders, then poking outwards.

Tacos El G Season

I have started to refer to college football season as “Tacos El G” season since we transitioned into a post-game tradition of going to Taqueria El Grullense after games. The restaurant is a dive, but the food seems good and authentic. The wet green/red burritos are quite popular among us, and if it was a hot day, I will usually get horchata as well.

Now that I enumerate a few of them, perhaps there aren’t as many as I thought there were. Perhaps I’ll count season tickets as a tradition in their own right. What really seems to matter here is the regularity and the comfort and cohesiveness that the activity brings. Maybe football (and sports as a whole) are ridiculous, but at least I’m participating in something bigger.

Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

Great Things About My Birthday

Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes. As it is, I think Julie gets more excited about my birthday than I do, but it’s still really nice to be treated specially once a year for pretty arbitrary reason. Here are a few of the nice things about it, some of which may resonate more with you than others.

Good Food

Julie and I went to Queen House, my favorite Chinese place in downtown Mountain View. We went there last year for my birthday, so I guess it’s becoming something of a tradition. They have really good beef noodle soup and a 3 dishes for $25 (plus rice or scallion pancakes) menu that has good options. I think I have figured out  a lot of Chinese restaurant dishes, but they still manage to make theirs taste extra good.

Afterwards, we went to Sno-Zen for shaved ice. My uncle and cousin introduced me to it down in LA, and I have been craving a second shot at it. It’s light and fluffy unlike snow cones (which are just icy), and it’s like ice cream without the heaviness. The owner was friendly and helpful above typical courteous service. I can appreciate that and would absolutely recommend it to a friend.

Baseball Trade Deadline

The MLB trade deadline happens to be July 31st, so I have baseball rumors and news going on through the mid-afternoon. In a sport spanning 162 games and more than half of the year, there are few times with a spurt of action, and this happens to be one of them.

Facebook

Facebook has spawned what I’m sure is the relatively new phenomena of having endless email or push notifications as people wish you a happy birthday all day. For me, it tends to be a lot of high school friends who I haven’t talked to forever, and though it’s somewhat superficial, I’m glad for the brief moment of connection that may bring back past relationships. I try to send back thanks to everyone in a few sittings over the course of the day with some other appreciative note or response.

Harry Potter and Shared Birthdays

Harry Potter’s birthday was also July 31st. Maybe I’m biased by the similarity, but I can’t think of another fictional characters’ birthday who is more recognized. That’s cool. I would also like to give a shoutout to my friends Andy, Michael, Sam, and the couple others who I very painfully have to say I have forgotten who also share my birthday.

Target

After getting shaved ice, Julie and I went to Target to buy somewhat mundane things like socks and contact solution. Everyone who I told this to when asked about birthday plans laughed, though Julie called me out for doing this deliberately for the laugh. I honestly really like Target: I’m not much for the detail and effort of buying clothes or other apparel, but I do like looking at a lot of knickknacks and other items, and Target is kind of the king of stuff that is totally accessible but not junk. The main goal was to buy new flip-flops, though the only pair that looked serviceable was unfortunately not purchased when Julie pointed out that the style was intended for females.

Gifts… from myself

Most transitions from childhood to adulthood are overstated, but a nontrivial one for me was the ability to get things for myself. I realized when I started working that unlike when I was a child, I can get the things I want on my own. I don’t have to wait for a birthday or christmas for a gift. This greatly affected the way I perceived the ownership of things. Fortunately, it hasn’t led to a spree of consumerism, though it has left me in an unusual spot for gifts. I think I previously blogged about trying to give gifts that one would not bother for on their own.

In my case, item number one was a new wallet. Do I really need a new wallet? Not really. My current wallet hasn’t completely fallen apart, and until I literally had money spilling out of my pockets, I probably wouldn’t do anything about it. On the other hand, the buckle is almost detached, a few sheets have come out, and it’s generally in poor condition. As such, thanks Julie for the new wallet on its way.

The flip side of that is that I usually have the will not to instantly buy the things I want and try to be realistic about how much I will use things. As such, it can be tricky to find the motivation to get things otherwise. Once a year, though, I have my birthday. Last year, it was a car. This year, it will be a set of pizza making supplies I have wanted for awhile: a baking steel, a pizza peel, and Jim Lahey’s book. If you haven’t tried his no-knead pizza dough recipe, you must. It’s very easy and absolutely delicious.

Cheaper Rental Cars

Unless I’m running for president, I believe 25 is the last important birthday as I don’t get charged extra for rental cars. Also, my coworker told me that I apparently don’t have to get insurance on rental cars. What a racket.

Why Professional Athletes Deserve Their Pay (and other don’t)

I think professional athletes get a bad rap for what they’re paid. People complain how LeBron James  is paid $6 a second on or off the court just to play a game. Certainly numbers like that put in perspective how much more millions is than what most of us make, but I don’t think the magnitude should shock us away from it. There are many people out there who, in my opinion, probably deserve their fortunes much less than professional athletes do. I wouldn’t necessarily say they deserve our scorn, but maybe it can help us understand how to best allocate our resources.

Starting with athletes, they deserve their pay because they offer a valued service. A perhaps unfortunate truth is that things in society are valued not necessarily on the effort or innovation behind them but simply on what they offer to society. Brilliant mathematicians, biologists, and other academics can spend many years developing a new theory that maybe doesn’t have immediate impact on society, and they are forgotten. On the other end, there are “cloning” businesses that just copy a product or service from someone else and rake in the dough. Similarly, many people (including myself) enjoy watching professional sports and will pay money for tickets and merchandise for it. Athletes are the basis for those sports, and they receive much of the profit. The total salary can be quite large, but that’s simply because of the scale of their impact. Most jobs yield results that are limited in effect, but athletes can affect billions of people by their performance

Another point is that these athletes are not directly replaceable. There is only one best, active basketball player in the world, and he is LeBron James.  We pay to see the best, and he is it. We aren’t satisfied (at least in this context) by an inferior team. Moreover, sports as a whole is well-developed to ensure that (with very high probability) the best athletes do make it to top billing. I’m comfortable saying LeBron is the best because of his raw performance and stats. There are many analysts and scouts both in the media and in sports organizations who work exhaustively to find the best talent, and from elementary school onward, we have development programs for the athletically gifted. I can’t be entirely certain abroad, but I’m pretty confident that those who excel in sports can find the right venues to feature their skills and move forward if they are truly the best. Professional sports is one of the true meritocracies in the world: performance is the most important metric for advancement.

Compare to the world of business, at least as much as I have seen. In business, a large part of success is who you know. People, whether fresh out of school for an entry job or an industry veteran looking at a leadership position, are often hired by reference or something along those lines, and it’s fair that many of them probably are qualified for the job. That many of these jobs are filled this way, however, indicates that there is a much larger population out there who weren’t as seriously considered for the role, some of whom could have been more qualified for the position. Recruiting and job hunting is still a major obstacle in today’s business world because many businesses neither have the reach nor the ability to effectively screen all potential candidates for a job. Perhaps the inefficiency is intrinsic: having that personal connection is valuable, and it’s hard to know from an interview how good someone actually will be. Even so, it’s hard to call something like that a meritocracy.

I think that luck also happens to play a much larger role in business. Granted, there’s a lot of luck play-to-play in sports, but even great players on bad teams can usually manage to earn a good salary or be traded to a team that will pay.  Barring bad luck in injury, there are usually enough opportunities to demonstrate one’s ability. In business, however, so much of what happen is out of our control. Great businesses were crushed in the economic recession. Some websites or apps go viral because it got picked for one news story or picked up in one area while many other comparable products are left in the dust. A major contract is signed or falls through for things as little as someone being caught in traffic.

The difference in my mind between business and sports with regard to luck is that sports happen in a regular, well-defined, often replicated environment where one’s ability can be demonstrated with high certainty. Business (I’m thinking startups and entrepreneurship specifically), on the other hand, is a much looser world where no one really knows what’s going to happen. Success (and pay) can come out of nowhere, or disappear just as quickly. This is going to be extremely cynical, but I think even the biggest successes in business often provide stories that are illusory and understate the importance of variables outside of their control. They probably did a lot of things right and managed a lot of risk, but they also weren’t sunk by something out of nowhere.

Even if we get past execution, it’s hard to say that people in business get what they deserver when there are differences in opportunity from birth. Anyone born in the United States (or equivalently developed country) also has a huge leg up. Being born into a middle or upper class family helps even more. Most people who graduate from college worked hard to get it, but it turns out that family income is pretty good predictor of making that happen. I can’t concretely point out that sports are different, but I think stories like The Blind Side and the demeaning stereotype of dumb jocks indicate that we believe that athletes often don’t come from the best backgrounds.

So everything I have put out there so far has been really strongly-worded and definitely polemical (note I also have tried to avoid specifics to avoid demonizing anyone), but I really do want to offer a positive spin on this. First, lay off the hate: I don’t think it’s productive for us to be annoyed at how much professional athletes make. They deserve it.

Second, I wonder whether we can use sports as a model for improving our education in general. Despite the integrity of some of his work, Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting piece awhile ago about athletic geniuses. I think our sports development program today is amazing: we identify talent at a very young age and have extensive support for it all the way through to adulthood. These programs are generally accessible  and really foster the best athletes possible. I wonder how well we can do in trying to bridge inequities in general education as well.

Furthermore, how can we come up with better, more efficient ways to allocate talent? The world is inherently messy and irregular, so maybe we can’t quite get the regularized conditions of sports, but anyone involved in either hiring or looking for a job can speak to the huge difficulty there. The scope is much greater than what sports organizations deal with using their scouts, but I think this can continue to improve here.

Speaking of the World Cup

I am shamelessly a World Cup-only fan. Despite the tremendous amount of soccer played throughout the world during the other 200-ish weeks between World Cups, I can’t be pulled away from NFL American football, NBA basketball, MLB baseball, and just a tad of NHL hockey, to pay attention to the leagues that the rest of the world care about. Over these 5 weeks, however, I quickly developed strong opinions about the ability of different teams, criticized FIFA for their policies, and expressed outrage about poor strategy and execution in game.

But that’s not really what I have been talking about these past few weeks. Instead, I would much rather talk about

and just about every topic that doesn’t actually involve the soccer itself but is somewhat related. Given the media coverage of these things, I think that i’m probably quite normal in this respect. During the World Cup, I feel obligated to stay informed and active in this event that citizens of almost every other country regard as being tremendously important. Even so, I can’t engage with it directly, so I stick to the odd news around it. It turns out that it’s a lot more fun to talk about the random stuff rather than analyze the intricacies of a game that I don’t actually understand.

And now that the World Cup is over, I return to my normal sports life, filled largely with my objectively irrational love of baseball, the least action-packed and most idiosyncratic popular sport I know. It’s only another 2 years until I again feign knowledge and interest in athletic competitions taking place in Brazil, only because the peer pressure that everyone else is faking enthusiasm for as well. But it’s a self-fulfilling and sustaining enthusiasm that I think we all enjoy quite a bit.

So good on you, Germany, for taking this one. Having watched a few of your games, I whole-heartedly believe that your team really deserved this victory, even though your strategy was quite conservative and boring in the final game.

But importantly, Scolari is out for having embarrassed Brazil. What do you think of that?