Way Too Much Detail About My Oatmeal Ritual

Since I started working about 7 years ago, I have eaten oatmeal for breakfast before work about 4 out of every 5 weekdays. Just recently, Julie and I decided that she would take over oatmeal-making duties to better align our morning schedules, and I had to show her how to do it. Continue reading “Way Too Much Detail About My Oatmeal Ritual”

My Favorite Things (with Evidence)

People love to share their favorite things. They write gift guides. They sing songs about them. They form committees to publish lists. They will bore you endlessly at parties. However, most of that is just talk. To really know what someone’s favorite things are, they need to put their money where their mouth is: what things did they actually spend money on? Continue reading “My Favorite Things (with Evidence)”

The Skating Rink

Before splitting up for the holidays, I wanted to meet up with my Bay Area transplant cousins Maddy and Adam. Maddy suggested that we might go ice skating, and since Julie had coincidentally mentioned skating as well, I knew we had quorum.

Wanting to avoid downtown Oakland, we drove out to Walnut Creek on Ice, which was the next closest rink to Berkeley. It was small and crowded. There were a lot of flailing skaters to avoid. It wasn’t safe to go very quickly. All of that was very similar to my past 2 experiences skating at the Winter Lodge.

What was new, however, were the “walkers”. Instead of carefully skating with their children and occasionally getting pulled down, parents could rent big, plastic, sliding podiums (see an example here) for their children to hang onto and scoot along. I can appreciate the concept: they work like training wheels, and they provide a physical barrier around the child. However, I found them somewhat scary because they can move so much faster and unpredictably than a child sitting on their butt because they had fallen down.

Having to deal with inexperienced skaters is fairly unusual amongst leisure activities. Most activities are structured and separated: 10 people play a game of pickup basketball, and 2 play a game of chess. Some players are good and some are bad, but you generally don’t have to worry about someone else knocking over your pieces. Even in other forms of exercise, there’s enough structure to avoid chaos. Swimming pools for doing laps get divided into lanes, and when it’s just open hours at a pool, there isn’t much of a shared goal. Ski slopes are rated for difficulty, and bicyclers pass on the left.

The skating rink, however, can have an arbitrary number of people sharing the same space, and successfully skating requires a lot of awareness to avoid others interfering with you. I have heard that some rinks have inner and outer loops for different experience levels, but that isn’t a lot of granularity for the chaos that can still ensue when one person can’t stop in time.

The fact that we haven’t imposed more structure, however, is maybe a testament to its effectiveness. When people fall in a skating rink, they usually laugh despite landing on ice. I can’t remember witnessing any serious injuries while skating. Generally, the crowd successfully skates around at the same rate. Despite complaining about how choppy the ice gets and how I almost got decked trying to avoid some hapless child, I have a good time skating, and since the rinks haven’t put in rules, I guess other people do, too.

After skating, we went to Smoke’s Poutinerie for dinner to incidentally complete a very Canadian experience here in California. Despite having skated frequently as a child in Canada, I can’t remember eating poutine while there. My best hypothesis for why is similar to why I missed other food in my childhood: my mom didn’t like it. But she probably knows best. Despite how wild the skating rink looks, a pile of fries drenched in gravy and covered with bacon is probably more dangerous anyways.

A Path Forward After the Election

Last night, we saw one of the most shocking results in American democracy with the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. We’re shocked about how wrong the polling was. We’re shocked that the people of this country would elect Trump. But really, we’re shocked to learn that this country is not what we thought it was, and more specifically, that we as a people aren’t who we thought we were.

As the progressive movement has made tremendous advances over the past few years on gay marriage, universal health care, and more, we have distanced ourselves from the opinions of many people across this country. We have allowed righteousness and confidence in our worldview to scorn or ignore many people who feel left out of this movement. These changes have eroded trust in our government’s ability and willingness to reflect our beliefs and have a beneficial impact in the lives of regular Americans.

In defeat, our pride is hurt. We could dispute the mandate or election process. We could call others racists or sexists. We could reject Trump as being “our president” and spend the next 4 years trying to undo this election. We could retreat into our own separate spheres and ignore the wide differences in our political views.

Or we can use this moment to unite us. We can re-affirm our belief that this country is stronger together. We can harness the our shared identity and turn our empathy towards the half of the country that very clearly stated their problems and desire for change.

I am optimistic and believe this election can be a positive force in the progressive movement. Faced with the reality of how this country really feels across a swath of issues, this election can be a call for us to re-engage in civic life and create the change we want to see. I believe that our government and our institutions can and should create good, but they are only as strong as the trust and energy we put into them.

As I saw the election results develop over the course of the night, I simultaneously experienced 5 stages of grief. In the end, however, I realized that this country will endure. Through our faith in democracy, we have gone through 56 peaceful transitions and 1 very notable unpeaceful exception, and although it might be a statistical error, I’ll take those odds.

Maybe this country isn’t what I thought it was, and honestly, what democracy has revealed about who we are has me worried. However, that feeling and perception doesn’t have to define any individual or us collectively. Across every facet, this election has been about change. Let’s all be part of that change and remember that our identity isn’t defined by any individual, community, or state. No single person is American: together, we are Americans.

My DNC Speech Rankings

I didn’t watch much of the DNC live, but I have been catching up on YouTube. I won’t go so deep as to talk about the issues, but I had enough thoughts about the rhetoric that I figured I would offer up my rankings on the best speeches at the convention. Overall, I thought that they were generally pretty good. I was particularly impressed by the variety of topics and approaches across the speeches: I underestimated the number of appeals that they could make and how they could use different speakers.

Anyways, here were my rankings.

10. Corey Booker

Not a lot of emotional range in his speech: pretty much all of it was pretty equally intensely positive. I thought the structure of the speech was pretty clever in starting with an appeal to moral values and community. However, I don’t think he talked about it in a very accessible way (though maybe I was just getting bored because I had watched his speech after 3 others). At least he got the “we will rise” in there to get the crowd going.

Continue reading “My DNC Speech Rankings”

A Few Tips from our Wedding

Julie and I are married! We had our wedding a few weeks ago here in the Bay Area, and we had a fantastic time. It’s hard to imagine what could go wrong surrounded by friends and family to celebrate, but regardless, we were glad that all of our plans came together so well.

On our honeymoon, we spent a lot of time talking about the experience and musing about what we would do differently for that 2nd time that presumably will never come to pass. Amongst the tons of internet advice available on how to plan a wedding, we came up with a list of a few things that we thought went particularly well or poorly.

As such, this particularly post has been written in long discussion with Julie who deserves credit for the good ideas here.

1. Use Asana and Google Drive.

We dumped proposals, contracts, guests lists, and plenty more into Google Drive to share with our parents. Having a single place to use as reference and share the schedule avoided a lot of back-and-forth and confusion.

Longtime blog readers know my obsession with task management systems, and I definitely wanted it for wedding planning, too. We started with an empty Asana project, brain dumped tasks, never *cough* forget to do something.

2. Check in on your hotel blocks.

When we booked our hotel blocks, the hotel staff had standard block sizes for us with the understanding that it would be adjusted as necessary. Around the wedding, I found out from guests that the hotel where we were holding most peripheral events was apparently booked up, and we had no idea. In retrospect, we should have either checked in directly with the staff or tried booking ourselves.

3. Test out your wedding dress for dancing.

Julie and I hadn’t danced together in the full get-up until about a half-hour before our first dance. This wasn’t a big deal for me, but it was a big deal for Julie. I would recommend increasing that lead time by several orders of magnitude to avoid embarrassing accidents. Specifically, Julie would have tried walking backwards in her wedding dress during shopping and tailoring.

4. Put your guests in touch ahead of time.

For cliques of friends or family, it’s helpful to plan logistics around transportation and lodging if they know who else will be attending. It can be somewhat awkward for potential guests to ask directly (and accidentally inquire a non-invitee), so I just made a big email list and included everyone on it. I thought all of the social events surrounding the wedding went well and was glad to support that in any way possible.

5. Get lots of sleep before the wedding.

The wedding day itself is long, but even before that, we had plenty of guests coming through with whom we wanted to spend as much time as possible. The casualty of all of the excitement, of course, was sleep. The final 2 weeks before the wedding kept us up late with planning, and that time should have literally been work, plan, and sleep with everything else cut out to make more time for those.

6. Plan the cake cutting.

Through almost the entire wedding, we knew what would happen, but even more importantly, we had someone else specifically cueing or directing us on what we needed to do. The one gap was cake cutting: we went over to cut the cake, and suddenly, everyone was looking at us, and we were just supposed to do it. It was not hard, but it was a surprise after following instructions all day. It’s hard to practice, and we should have had a plan there.

7. Direct the DJ.

We are very fortunate to have very enthusiastic dancers amongst our friends and family, but not everything is going to work for the crowd. When the dancing was dying down, Julie told the DJ to “play stuff that people know”, and that re-invigorated the crowd.

8. Step back for a moment and take in the wedding.

One of Julie’s cousins gave us this advice during the wedding, and I wish I had followed it. Once I started getting dressed for the wedding, things never really stopped until Julie and I got in the car and drove away. Having everyone gathered together for us was a awe-inspiring thought, but we were so caught up in the action that I don’t think I ever really took it in. That would have been worth the 30 seconds to hang onto that feeling forever.

A photo posted by Nicole Cross (@43rdavephoto) on

Making a Wedding Registry

I have been telling people that making a wedding registry is a lot of fun: you get the joy of shopping without the pain of actually paying for anything. However, it hasn’t been a senseless shopping spree for Julie and me, and it has required far more deliberation than I had initially thought.

We started assembling our registry a few weeks ago when Julie created a shared Reminders list on our phones. Despite already owning plenty of single-function kitchen equipment, I always have my eye on something else. For example, I needed to fill an Amazon order a few weeks ago and ended up getting a shrimp deveiner. You might think that a pairing knife would suffice, but I have spent many afternoons deveining piles of shrimp to make won ton. As such, this icicle-shaped piece of plastic could change my life as much as a banana slicer or cherry pitter has.71PfUYplvrL._SY355_

The first pass on the registry was easy: I had wanted an ice cream maker for a long time. And a cookie dough scoop. And a cake carrier. And plenty of much more obscure equipment. Although I could only marginally justify purchasing these things myself, it was easy to ask for them knowing we were filling out a registry.

We drove out to the mall and walked through Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel to work on our registry. I feel like a child in a toy store when I’m in Williams-Sonoma: I see lots of things that I want but can’t reasonably get. It’s really easy to see measuring cups and want new measuring cups but hard to get rid of old measuring cups. Knowing there was no cost to it, however, our registry quickly filled up to a few dozen items.

After that, the registry sat unattended on our phones for several weeks. I think we knew that the tough work was ahead and liked the idea of the registry more than actually composing it. It’s easy to want a cookie dough scoop: it’s harder to figure out exactly which of the 3 models of cookie dough scoops is best and will ultimately be the best choice for us.

Two or three weeks ago, Julie actually created the registries online, and we started working through it. I had my “America’s Test Kitchen” cookbook out to the equipment guide section and The Sweethome open on another tab. Thankfully, other, more talented and patient people have tested and rated the quality of many items to find the very best anything. With them at hand, I know which one is the sharpest or which one is the easiest to clean. Some items were easy to pick: there is apparently 1 Bundt pan to buy, and the stores carry it. Some required some effort, such as the Peugeot pepper mill, which is available but comes in a variety of sizes and colors. Others, like the electric kettle, came with suggestions unavailable where we were registering. In those cases, was it even worth registering if we could get the best one?

There has been a surprising amount of soul-searching in creating the registry as well, especially compared to other wedding decisions. Luckily, Julie and I have either been on the same page or disproportionately invested in other wedding decisions. We have split the work on researching different vendors and then picked the best one in a reasonable process.

On top of registry items for new kitchen gadgets, registries often contain replacements for existing items, and those existing items may have emotional attachments for some people. I can comfortably say that accusingly because I have been the problem in our registry. As we ticked down the list of items to register for, Julie innocently mentioned everyday china. At the thought of not using the Corelle plates and bowls that I had grown up using and then selfishly taken from my parents, I immediately became defensive and began rationalizing with Julie why we should keep them.

Julie was taken aback by my emotional response to some lightweight, microwavable plates and bowls, but she did relent after a series of baffling (to her) conversations. That, however, only eliminated one decision, and we next looked deeper into the wide world of fine china and silverware. Unlike functional kitchen tools where you can determine the best model measuring a series of objective measures, china is quite subjective, with which I am of only limited use. Best of luck to Julie with that.

We’re almost done with the registry, and I’m looking forward to having that figured out. I thought it was just going to be a big shopping spree, but we have had to think much harder than that. Although most wedding decisions are one-time choices for a single day, registry gifts may follow us for the rest of our lives. If we don’t make the right choice now, I might die a little every time I try to grate parmesan over the next 60 years.

That’s a big decision that, in some ways, probably matches the significance of marriage much more strongly than most wedding decisions. Not only am I committing to Julie for the rest of my life, I’m also committing to this microplane zester for the rest of my life, though that’s more because I’m too cheap to replace it. At least with the registry, we can make independent choices on specific items to optimize the whole registry in a tractable manner. In picking each other, we’re each kind of a package deal: if Julie wants my vegetable chopping ability, she will also have to accept the subpar dish cleaning job.

I can’t speak for her, but I’m more than happy with that.

How Playing Tuba is and isn’t like riding a bike

When I am further along and in a more thoughtful mood, I’ll write a more complete post explaining why I decided to join a community wind ensemble and play tuba again. This post, however, is just a smattering of reactions from going to my first rehearsal in about 8 years.

Overall, the experience was a lot of fun. It’s amazing that I sat in a room of total strangers and was able to make music as part of a large ensemble. Some things went well. Some things did not go well. Here were the highlights.

Things that were liking riding a bike

1. Hitting notes. I’m probably overestimating how well I did, but in general, I was able to find the intervals fairly well. I tested my range up to 3 octaves, so that’s pretty much all there as well.

2. Rhythms. We got some funky time signatures like 4/2 and 5/8, and for an instrument best known for playing downbeats in a polka-like fashion, we had some strange syncopated rhythms as well. I definitely flubbed some faster sections, but I mostly didn’t get lost.

3. Counting rests. Nothing makes you feel more special in music than counting rests for 20 bars.

4. Hearing tuning problems. During warmup and in a few long notes, I could hear that I was badly out of tune. I actually didn’t even have a tuba when I showed up for rehearsal, and the director fortunately had an extra tuba lying around to lend to me. at least it was a miraphone, which is mostly what I have played. Anyways, I didn’t know the instrument and didn’t get a chance to tune with a machine.

Things that were not like riding a bike

1. Fixing tuning problems. Just because I could hear the issues and knew why they were happening didn’t mean I could fix them. On more than one occasion, I stopped playing because I knew I sounded bad and couldn’t do anything about it.

2. Key signatures. Were it not for the big poster on the wall of the middle school music room with the circle of fifths, I would give myself a 50-50 chance of naming the key I was in at any given measure. I instead relied largely on instinct for whether a note should be sharp or flat based on roughly how many symbols were in the key signature. Many apologies to the tuba player next to me who listened to me miss the same notes over and over.

3. Accidentals. I could not think fast enough for some of the accidentals, especially the weird ones like F-flat. Actually, combined with my uncertainty about the key signature, I probably accidentally played the accidentals correctly. Nevermind. This one went okay.

4. Endurance. This actually didn’t go as badly as I thought it might: the tuba parts were not too difficult, so I made it through a 2 1/2 hour rehearsal without blowing out my chops. However, I felt a lot of tightness in my lips while I was warming up and generally did not play the full dynamic range during rehearsal, so it was a constraint. On a related note, if you have not had tightness in your lips from playing a brass instrument for the first time in a long time, take my word for it that it is extremely bizarre.

5. Reading ledger lines. In my high school music, I was largely spared playing low notes because the music tended not to go that low (maybe an E below the staff). The music we were sightreading, however, was much more challenging in this sense because I was regularly reading 3 or 4 ledger lines below the staff, and I have no idea what any of those notes are. I know I can hit them if I had a fingering written in, but I didn’t, so I just put a lot of fingers down and played low. I think most people are not trained to distinguish notes that low anyways, so I got away with it.

Overall, I thought that the rehearsal went well, and I really enjoyed playing again, even if I missed so many key signatures. I hopefully will write more about the experience soon, but in the meantime, you can check out my view of rehearsal.

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the picture is sideways because I don’t know how to fix the orientation in wordpress

Stories versus Statistics

I like statistics. Statistics don’t lie. Out of context, they can mislead, but they can’t lie.

I like stories. Stories create meaning. Out of context, they can mislead, but they are just as impactful.

Unfortunately, stories and statistics are very different approaches and often conflict with each other. Here are a few examples.

Baseball loves statistics. Sabermetrics is the usage of advanced statistics to analyze player performance, which led to the idea of Moneyball. By calculating Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), we can compare players controlling for various conditions and better quantify their performance. On the other hand, there really is something to watching a batter’s swing or seeing a clutch performance in game. Both are approaches to analyzing a prospect’s future potential or a retired player’s hall of fame candidacy.

Charity, fundraising, and non-profit organizations have to convince regular citizens and philanthropic organizations to contribute. They might tell us that there are 5.2 million Americans had Alzheimer’s in 2014. Or maybe they will play Sarah MacLachlan’s “Angel” while talking about animal cruelty. Somehow, we have to be convinced about the saliency of a problem to want to take action.

In my work on web applications, my team is always trying to learn more about our users and what they do. One way we can do it is with analytics by counting how many times users click on this link over a month, or what percentage of our users are from Europe. Another approach is with user testing by looking over a user’s shoulder as they use our application. Analytics provide a complete picture, but they don’t explain why. User testing details a user’s behavior, but it’s just one.

In all of these examples, we have quantitative and qualitative approaches of analysis. Quantitative approaches tend to rely on numbers over a broad sample to appeal to our rational nature. Sadly, we are not very rational. Qualitative approaches tend to rely on a small set of narratives to appeal to our sensitive nature. Sadly, they are empirically not particularly valid.

It’s paradoxical that humans tend not to have good statistical intuitions, largely because of our bias towards causal reasoning. A classic example of bad statistics is in guessing conditional probabilities: we aren’t good at integrating the data together. On the other hand, we tend to look for reasons and patterns behind all sorts of data. In daily life, it’s helpful, but it makes us susceptible to a good story and our desire to see things where there is just chance.

The two ways of thinking aren’t always in conflict: they can be used in tandem. FiveThirtyEight is a data journalism organization that does the work to find good numbers and present them in a digestible format. The good numbers of often statistics, and the presentation puts together a story for us to understand. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about how he uses a classic science journalism format. Each finding begins with an anecdote for the reader to attach to, then transitions into methods and results of the study. It makes the topic both gripping and valid.

This is all very troubling because I tend to see storytelling by nature as a lie to get to a deeper truth. I believe in good quantitative analysis and understanding of randomness. There’s the truth about how the world works. Stories build on top of that. Sometimes, they invent connections that don’t exist in reality. In any case, they affect us as humans deeply and can overemphasize an idea. Playing “Angel” in a commercial is intended to touch us without any regard for the relative importance or impact of ASPCA over any other issue or organization.

Of course, statistics get a bad reputation because some representations can deceive, and excluded data can present a biased perspective. As a whole, however, quantitative analysis is intended to capture representative data. Stories deliberately present limited perspectives.

To ground this entire discussion, my recent interest in storytelling has been very troubling to me because of my preference towards quantitative ways of thinking. I most recently have been biased towards them because of my studies in college: despite being in an interdisciplinary major, I leaned more heavily on engineering and social sciences rather than the humanities. The fact that I barely read fiction in college tells you what I was mostly exposed to.

So it seems like there’s something to stories. Stories are a natural way for us to communicate, whether in conversation, journalism, science fiction novels, or commercials. Although I think my skepticism is probably healthy, stories can evoke responses that even the greatest light bulb moments can’t quite replicate. Besides, I wouldn’t have much of a blog if I didn’t believe in telling stories.