Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2017 Edition.

It only took 6 tries, but this year, I finally served a Thanksgiving dinner on-time, and more importantly, I felt totally relaxed. Although I have prepared gantt charts for the past several years, I always ended up behind schedule and needed to draft additional sous chefs to finish dishes while I was carving the turkey. This year, I was actually ahead of schedule, and like years past, I learned a few things that made it all happen. Continue reading “Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2017 Edition.”

Running a D&D Murder Mystery

This last week, I ran my first murder mystery adventure for my weekly Dungeons & Dragons group. I have designed many adventures, written a handful of mystery stories, and critiqued many mystery book, but I had never quite combined those into writing a mystery adventure. Continue reading “Running a D&D Murder Mystery”

Lessons in teaching a video game

This past week, my coworkers and I spun relived junior high with a Diablo 2 LAN party. To fit the stereotype, we got pizza for dinner and picked up Doritos and Mountain Dew to power us through 4 hours of gaming. Although Diablo 2 (D2) is mostly cooperative, we split into 2 teams and raced to beat Diablo first*. Unfortunately, the winning team only got half-way through the 3rd of 4 acts, but despite the sore eyes, wrists, and right index fingers, we had a ton of fun.

*for reference, speed runners can beat D2 in less than 1 1/2 hours. Here’s a video of MrLlamaSC doing a speed run for an event where he explains in detail exactly what he’s doing

Well, most of us had a ton of fun. Although many of us have fond memories of endless Baal runs, we also had a few Diablo 2 newbies. Some were slightly too young and had played Diablo 3. Some had just played a lot of other video games but never action RPGs. Some hadn’t played video games at all. It’s was a mixed group, and in retrospect, it wasn’t a particularly fun experience for them. Continue reading “Lessons in teaching a video game”

Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2016 Edition

According to tradition, I hosted my company for an early Thanksgiving last week. Although I enjoy hosting and cooking for friends regularly, this event is by far the most ambitious as I cook a full meal for about 20 people. Each year has been an opportunity for me to learn more about hosting, and I have a few more lessons to share from this year.

In the past, I have done various ethnic and regional cuisines, but I have run short on ideas. Of course, there are plenty more unexplored cuisines in this world, but I have only picked cuisines that I think I have an edge on and wouldn’t be offending co-workers who know that culture better than I do. This year, I ended up doing a Canadian Thanksgiving, which was some combination of stereotypical Canadian food (butter tarts) and using maple syrup in everything. Continue reading “Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2016 Edition”

What I learned from Fantasy Football

A few weeks ago, I finished up the latest fantasy football* (FF) season in 2nd place in my work league and 5th place in my friend league. Having played for 3 seasons, I am mostly past the initial disgust about bad luck and mostly jaded about the entire process. Having gotten this far, though, I do have a few different lessons from the experience.

(*for the uninitiated, fantasy football is a game where a group of people (usually friends) play “games” in a season where, each week, your team’s performance is determined by the statistics of how real-life NFL football players perform (e.g. you get 6 points for a touchdown or points per yards gained). Everyone drafts their team before the beginning of the real NFL season, and over the course of the season, you can trade with other teams, pick up and drop players, and change your lineup week to week. )

1. Actual game knowledge can be very deceiving.

“A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” When you’re on a fantasy football website, there are going to be projections and rankings and all sorts of information to help you make good decisions. I have seen a lot of real football fans (i.e. people who actually watch and follow football and not just fantasy) try to outsmart the predictions with some obscure knowledge, but my experience is that typically, the football-naive (but fantasy savvy) people do better. Maybe you heard that your running back plays really well in sub-50 degree games or saw how fast he makes cuts and should crush a slower set of linebackers: the experts probably know that, too, and that he only plays that way in indoor stadums, and that his left guard still has a lingering injury.I think we tend to overvalue game knowledge in fantasy when rankings have already accounted for those facts.

2. Don’t trust anyone. Trust everyone.

Continue reading “What I learned from Fantasy Football”

My Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2015 edition

Long time readers of almost exactly 1 year may remember that I cook a Thanksgiving dinner for my company a week or 2 before actual Thanksgiving. It is probably the biggest event that I host each year, and I hopefully am learning more each time about how to do it better.

Continuing my tradition of doing different ethnic cuisines, I did a Cajun Thanksgiving this year with a Creole spice mix over the turkey and a variety of spicy and rich dishes. Fortunately, I am the only person on the team from the south, so there weren’t many critical opinions in the crowd.

Overall, I think the food was fine. The turkey was overcooked, and the mashed potatoes were very salty (even after cutting down the salt from the recipe). Because Cajun is a real American cuisine, it already has Thanksgiving fare that is not so dissimilar from a traditional Thanksgiving.

The biggest factor, however, was the attendance. Last year, we had somewhere just shy of 10 people attend. This year, our 2 bedroom place hosted a total of 20 hungry people. This year, more significant others attended, and we also invited recent interns back. The team has also been growing, and all of this ballooned the headcount, expectations, and required preparation.

Overall, I think we managed to do well. Despite running out of most dishes, the guests seemed to be well-fed and enjoyed the food. Everyone seemed to enjoy the company, and the mix of SOs and former Zanbato employees made it a more special event than another meal with the people we spend 40+ hours with a week.

Here were a few of the things I learned and/or felt worked well with the party this year:

1. Create a clear, smooth welcome experience.

First impressions between people are important, and first impressions about a party also set the tone for the social experience the rest of the night. In the past, I have been bouncing back and forth between the door and the kitchen hollering out instructions while trying to dash back to my gravy. This year, I wrote up a series of signs directing guests to come right in at the front door, where to put their bags and jackets, and where to find drinks and appetizers.

2. In a small space, configure and reconfigure to make all of the space multi-functional.

With 20 people in a few hundred square feet (including my kitchen), we fit the normal dining table, an additional folding table, and a few couches around a coffee table for eating. I knew I wanted to have everyone standing and mingling during the appetizer hour, so we pushed all of the tables back against the walls and blocked out the chairs so that people couldn’t really settle in. This created a more open, standing space for people to float around and get settled.

When we were ready to serve, everyone was happy to help and rearrange furniture for dining. We cleaned just enough counter space in the kitchen to serve and moved the appetizers and beverages back off of the tables. Then, everyone found a seat to enjoy their meal.

We did find 2 things to improve. First, Julie pointed out that the appetizers were hard to get to because people were standing in front of them. They ended up being placed somewhat int he corner, so next time, I would place them more centrally. Second, I would have encouraged everyone to switch seats between dinner and dessert for more mingling.

3. To feed more people, multiply recipes instead of making more dishes.

Overall, the cooking process went very smoothly. This year, I went digital with my chart to plan out cooking, and we stuck with it. I conscripted my coworker Conrad to help cook through the last push, and we stayed on the schedule very well.

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Even so, cooking did take quite awhile between the previous evening and the day of. Seeing how we ran out of most everything, I think people would have been just as happy with having 2-3 fewer dishes and just doubling the recipes. That would have saved me a ton of work as well.

4. Don’t worry too much about the food.

Maybe people are just being polite, but I have gotten a lot of appreciation for the food despite my own opinion about the quality of the cooking. I wouldn’t say that people aren’t critical: I just think there is generally enough goodwill and merriment in the atmosphere that the food itself just doesn’t matter so much.

So whether the food is good or bad or too much or too little, I think the party depends more on the other details of the environment and the company present than the food itself. The time spent on the food will always be disproportionately high to its importance, and it is much harder to improvise than, say, a guest list.

Anyways, we’re headed into the holiday season now, so best of luck to all hosts. Don’t worry too much about the food, and enjoy the company!

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!

Flowing Through

(Author’s Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago. Also, new WordPress theme so it looks like every other WordPress blog made this year)

Last week, we had a very clogged tub drain. The flow slowed down over the past few weeks, but our vicious attack one  morning of Julie’s shaved legs and my shaved head put an end to almost all of the water flow. The first day, I used some vigorous plunging, which did little except to cause minor debris to flow back into my tub. The next day, I poured in the other half bottle of Drano that I had, which cleared the drain about as well as hairy water.

Like a washroom hypochondriac, I took to the internet, which suggested that the only remaining fix would be to snake the drain. The first step in the process was to understand how a snake works. If you are as clueless as I was, here’s the short version. There’s a flexible line that you feed in until you hit a bend. Then, you lock the line into the cylinder you’re holding, then rotate that to fit the bend. Then, you unlock and feed the line again. I learned all of this around midnight while staring at the ankle-deep pool in my tub, so I resolved to address the problem first thing in the morning. Continue reading “Flowing Through”

My Mailbox and Me

When I moved in, I received 2 keys to the front door, 2 keys to the storage unit, and directions to the parking spot for the car I do not have. With that, I felt more than set to move in and happily moved all of my boxes in. After talking to my neighbor, I got basic instructions on utilities, leaving only internet as the last major task to deal with. That belief seems incredibly naive now, and my laundry key, lack of access to my homeowners account, spare modem from comcast, and non-locking mailbox all agree. Let me focus on that last one.

The next day, I went to check my mail. My mailbox is mounted against the wall just outside my front door in a box shared with 3 neighbors. The mailman has a single key that unlocks the entire box to place mail into each of our boxes individually, to which we each have a key. Except me. I quickly discovered that none of my 4 keys opened the mailbox. This was fine as I needed to call the homeowners management company anyways to sort out a few details and get access to the laundry facilities before I ran out of underwear.

I happen to have the number for the management company off of a maintenance door in the carports below my unit and gave them a call. I had a few questions in mind, but it’s the things that one doesn’t know to ask that really become problematic, so I politely asked the woman on the phone what things I needed to do surrounding moving in to get setup.

“…You just… move in.” Having clearly asked a stupid question, I got more specific with my concerns, such as the key for the mailbox.

“You should have received it from the previous owner.” I made a note to check on that, which I was able to quite soon because she clearly could not get off the phone with me soon enough. I emailed my real estate agent Mike* about it, and he confirmed with the seller that there were no other keys available. The property was bank-owned and vacant, so presumably the last owner forgot to send along the mailbox key. That’s understandable, though: I myself forget things all the time, like forwarding mail for previous tenants.

I called the management company again to sort this out since I clearly did not and cannot receive a key from the previous owner.

“You should have received the key from the previous owner.” This I was aware of, because unlike this same woman answering the phone, I was listening when the situation was explained to me. I repeated again that the property was bank-owned and the seller did not have a key.

“Well, we don’t deal with mailboxes. You need to talk to the post office about that.” That I can work with.

Soon after, I gave the local post office a phone call, where a much nicer fellow listened to my question about getting access to my mailbox. Sadly, because it was a wall-mounted mailbox (and not a free-standing mailbox), the post office apparently also was not responsible for access to the mailbox, and I should instead bother the homeowners about it.

With no one taking responsibility for the situation, my real estate agent swooped in and apparently redid both of my phone calls with greater success. He determined that the post office misunderstood my mailbox situation and that it was their responsibility. I could either pay to have the post office come out and replace it or buy a new lock myself, wait for the mailman, and replace the lock when he opened the box to give me access to the back. Being cheap, I tried for the latter.

A few days later, I had successfully purchased a lock and asked my neighbor via sticky note when the mailman came each day. Unfortunately, the window was from 11-4, so I took some time to work from home while I waited for the mailman to come.

I rode home from work just before 11 and saw that the mail truck was just across the street from my complex, so it seemed that I might be able to get done with this quickly. Unfortunately, the route apparently doesn’t come back up my side of the street for awhile as he didn’t arrive within the next hour. I was, however, beset by a number of false alarms as movers when up and down the stairs right the mailbox to get to the unit above mine. The next few hours moved slowly as I split my attention between work and sounds from outside. Sometime after 3, I got  sleepy, and without my usual mid-afternoon distraction in the office, I flopped back onto the carpet and probably fell asleep.

I was awoken very soon, though, by some ruffling outside, and like a spirit out of a dream, I checked my front door and saw Eduardo the mailman putting in the mail. I asked him if he would mind if I swapped out the mailbox lock, which he didn’t. I had put a sticky on the front of my mailbox for the previous week instructing the mailman to put my mail on my doorstep instead, so the entire situation was likely anticipated. I apparently looked as confused as I was, despite having read instructions online on how to replace mailbox locks, so stopped for a moment and gave me brief instructions on what to do: I needed a pair of pliers to pull out a clip holding the lock in place, and in the meantime, he would go finish up with mail on the rest of my building.

Sadly, pliers only existed in my condo on a “To Get” list, and when he saw me a few minutes later with a wrench and having made no progress, he expressed his incredulity at my ineffectiveness (in a very positive and amused way) and did it himself while complaining about my lack of tools. Having removed the clip, it should have been easy enough to pull the lock out, but unfortunately, the locking cam (the piece of metal that rotates to actually hold the door locked) wasn’t coming off, and neither was the lock.

Typically, the cam is just held to the lock with a nut, but there was no such nut on this lock. We managed to wiggle the cam enough to get the door to open, but the lock still wouldn’t fit out of the hole in the door. He next suggested that I get a screwdriver and hammer to pop the cam off of the lock. When I mentioned that I didn’t have a hammer, he looked me straight in the eye and said in the kindest manner,

“Brother, how do you own a house but have a hammer?” I fumbled out something about having just moved in, though I still don’t have a hammer. In any case, he then gave me detailed instructions on how to remove the lock from the mailbox and backup directions on getting to the nearby locksmith if I was unsuccessful. And with that, he left to carry on with his job, serving the rest of the community.

Still hammerless, I played around with the lock for awhile longer, trying to use the wrench to wiggle it this and that way. With a bit of work, though, it seemed clear that the problem was that the cam was still in the wrong position to pull the lock out, and if only I could turn the cam, I could probably get the lock out. To turn the cam, I needed to turn the lock, but if I could turn the lock, I could have saved myself this entire adventure and a blog post. Well, time to open the lock like a video game character: the picks come out.

I looked up instructions on how to pick a lock online. If you don’t know how to pick a lock at a high level, please take this opportunity to watch a video online. It’s actually quite simple: put some tension on the lock by twisting it, then push the tumblers into position with something small and pointy.

Well, an hour later and a series of bent paperclips later, the lock was still on my mailbox. Several forces were working against me. First, I didn’t have a tension wrench or something shaped similarly to put tension on the lock while trying to pick it, so I had to fashion one out of a paperclip. These, however, tended to be quite weak. Second, mailbox locks are smaller than conventional locks, giving me less working space than usual. Third, I have never tried picking a lock before and knew little beyond a 2 minute internet video made by a 9 year old.

So this all happened maybe a week or two ago, and I still haven’t figured out my mailbox situation. The door is currently ajar and cannot be locked. The mailman has continued to put mail on my doorstep as instructed, though I’m sure Eduardo shakes his head whenever he comes by and sees that I still haven’t fixed things. I think my next move will be to try to use the wrench I have to twist various parts of the lock into more useful positions, but at this point, I’m not optimistic. I might just have to give up and go to the locksmith to remove the lock for me. The mailbox has already won too many rounds against me for me to salvage any part of this process. Still, I guess I’m just a sucker for the challenge.

* By the way, Mike is awesome. If you’re looking for housing in the area, you should talk to him

Taking Back Time By Letting It Slip Away

(This was originally written a few weeks ago in Anaheim at ALA. It has since been edited)

2 1/2 years ago, I went to my first library conference, and that feels like both too recent and too long ago.

StackMap is in pretty good shape nowadays. We can always make the product better, but we’ve worked out more of our practices, from our 30 second demos to code customization. Despite offering the same basic idea from our founding, we have learned and improved so much over 4 years, and we even have external validation for that. Before, we received a lot of skepticism from libraries. Mostly, they were concerned about using StackMap after we (presumably) moved on in a few years. Well, we haven’t, and now, we even get referrals in the exhibitors hall at the ALA annual conference from friends who noticed the “StackMap guys”. Even thought we’re still considered “new” in the library space, how libraries respond to us indicate that we’ve matured tremendously in their eyes. Somehow, we’ve apparently learned the secret phrase for acceptance into this world.

That development, along with other details, has made this the most relaxed conference I have been to. To get to the convention center by 9, I wake up at 8, which is well past my normal alarm nowadays. Without the usual chores of the day, I’m be in bed by 11 or 12 without any other distractions, and have even managed to do some reading before bed.

This fixed schedule is a major benefit I discovered after finishing school a few months ago and subsequently starting work. Overnight, my daily life changed, starting from my alarm going off and continuing through my social setting in the evenings. The biggest change, however, has been reclaiming my downtime. When I was still in school, I often felt like I was on the clock, regardless of the time of day. I had the obvious commitments on my calendar, y, like meetings and classes, I it also had my deliberate relaxation and procrastination.

I made the apparently liberating discover that time is fluid and that all activities are tradeoffs. At any time, I could sleep or study. Attending class is generally good, but if the time was better spent doing the homework for that class, I could just watch lecture later. Leisure was factored in there as a necessary part of a balanced life, but a lot of the value of free time disappears when you’re focused on what you’re giving up to take it. With this thinking, I broke free of the calendar and could work in my own way by paying attention only to deadlines.

The unexpected consequence of this thinking was that no moment was my life was ever truly free. Every choice had a very apparent opportunity cost, and the accumulation of all those losses in my mind sapped me of the joys that come from the unstructured, whimsical moments in life. I lost the value of the moment for itself, instead focusing on everything else it could’ve been.

Since then, I have been getting used to the idea that I have time that I don’t need to dedicate to anything in particular. I have been more often washing dishes for no better reason than that “I don’t have anything better to be doing with my time”, whereas my roommate often needed to get back to studying. Thankfully, I don’t mind washing dishes, but even if I did, it was worth doing just to use that reason.

A difficult point for me to adopt, however, has been savoring the moments in my life. Consider a specific example: lying in bed. Since midway through high school when I started falling behind on sleep, I have fallen asleep very quickly after turning the lights out. In the mornings, I rarely lie in bed just to enjoy it. I’ll stay if I’m tired and think I can fall asleep again, but if I’m awake, I don’t fear the world outside the warmth of my covers and starting the day as soon as possible.

Until recently, this gusto was worth having. During the week, my alarm was timed precisely with my class schedule, and on the weekends, I could always start brunch or homework on embark on some outing sooner. Now, weekends aren’t as often dedicated to planned activities or work. Weekends just happen, and I haven’t yet accepted that lying in bed is worth happening.

I’m probably blessed in my general alacrity, but I wonder what I lack that makes these activities not worth my time. I never stay in the shower to enjoy the water running over me, I don’t particularly enjoy walking as a method of transportation, and I don’t watch the iTunes visualizer. Ever.

After obsessing about the utility of every moment and working to maximize it both in the present and future, I have tried hard to let chance back into my life. It’s a battle as I turn my procrastination list back into a procrastination list instead of a backlog of recommended fun. My optimized schedule of relentless activities can loosen up and allow 30 minute gaps back in without seeming wasted. Instead of planning to make the most of all my time, I can grow into my life and appreciate how amazing this world, which I have always lived in, can be.