How my Mom just helped me better understand Mr. Rogers

The challenges around Coronavirus are numerous, from economic to psychological. Those challenges are currently on the minds of probably every single person on Earth, in one way or another.

A friend recently asked me some questions about challenges which she got from an organization called Essential Partners. These questions got me thinking so much that I wanted to share my thoughts.

The questions:

  1. What is a challenge you’ve experienced in your life that led to you overcoming an obstacle?
  2. What strength, value, or part of you helped you overcome it?
  3. Where or from whom did you acquire that strength, value, or part of yourself?
  4. From whom, if anyone, did you find support?
  5. Did that moment or experience change who you are?  If so, how?

I’d love to hear your answers to these questions in the comments below!

Here are my responses:

1. What is a challenge you’ve experienced in your life that led to you overcoming an obstacle?

I feel I’ve been pretty blessed in life, and I have had few serious challenges.

Of course, everyone’s definition of a challenge is different.

One thing that led to a pretty big change in my life was my Mom’s cancer diagnosis.

My Mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2011. I was crushed, and I felt helpless. I knew I wanted to help her and my Dad however I could. 

Thankfully, my job at the time was mostly computer-based, so I could do it from pretty much anywhere. My wonderful manager at the time allowed me to work from the hospital, a 4 hour drive away. I still came back to the office for at least part of the week, because I didn’t want to totally get out of touch with my job

One day while I was gone, I learned that my department at the company was dissolved. 

The team was reassigned to different departments, and I was told I was being sent to a team that sounded simply horrible. I had negative interest in doing what would be required for this project. Worse yet, switching teams likely meant I couldn’t work from the hospital or my parents’ home nearly as easily.

Some might see all this as a significant challenge, but at that point, it almost felt like a relief.

Why having a career upheaval didn’t seem like a major challenge to me

Even before my team was dissolved, I had been thinking of making a job change… although it seemed more like a far-off dream than something I could take action upon anytime soon.

I had always liked the idea of working for myself. My Mom and Dad empowered me to be able to work for myself ever since I was young; they made sure I had a computer to learn on, and that I had the time to develop the skills of understanding technology.

Some of that involved playing video games! But even those frequently resulted in me learning practical skills without even realizing it. I had to type for most of these games, and by the time I was 14 I could type nearly 100 words per minute. Eliminating the friction of getting my thoughts into a computer was a massive skill as I started building software and making websites in my pre-teen years. I kept developing those skills through my teenage years, through a Computer Engineering undergrad degree in college, and during my post-college years working as a Systems Engineer.

In 2011, I was pondering working as a contractor for others, or attempting to start a new company. But I was always a little fearful of what might happen if I failed.

In the face of my Mom’s sickness, what was truly worth fearing irreversibly changed.

Dying, something we humans have not been able to figure out a way to reverse, suddenly became about the only thing worth stressing about. Other things in my life became much less concerning.

Suddenly, even if self-employment didn’t work out, the prospect of that failure seemed much less overwhelming.

My fear of failure and rejection shrank.

The money I saved up over my six years of employment further reduced my fear.

So did being able to deeply trust friends and family to help me out if my career took a bad turn.

And having two co-founders for the new company who I trusted reduced the fear even more.

I was glad I followed my heart on being self-employed and spending more time with my Mom and Dad then, because the next nine months were the last months I got to spend with my Mom here on Earth. She died in June of 2012. I was so thankful to be able to spend more time with her thanks to changing my job.

Prior to the nightmare of my Mom getting cancer, quitting a job and attempting to start a new company, completely from scratch, was scary. But it sure got a lot less scary.

I’m happy to report that in 2020, I continue to get to grow that same company I helped create with my two-cofounders in 2011. We now have a team of smart, hard-working people whom I’m proud to work with. We help build tools for researchers and libraries… including researchers working on getting us out of the COVID-19 mess we find ourselves in today!

2. What strength, value, or part of you helped you overcome it?

The ability to embrace change, and adjust my expectations and behavior to a new reality, was key in all I mentioned above. 

But I didn’t necessarily recognize it at the time.

My wonderful wife Diveena has helped me understand the value of that quality. I consider that a huge help during this challenging time in my life, and for any challenges in life. Perhaps challenges are simply changes we aren’t prepared for?

3. Where or from whom did you acquire that strength, value, or part of yourself?

A few sources:

  • My parents & how they raised me
  • My interest in experiencing variety, and my interest in traveling
    • Since I can remember, I’ve always been interested in traveling, and the variety of experiences and people that come with that
    • When traveling, you’re bound to have to adjust your plans to take into account new information you didn’t have before!
    • All of my formative travel experiences were thanks to my parents, who helped me explore many places, whether via long road trips or plane rides
  • Meeting people who handled major life changes
    • Especially friends who had voluntarily immigrated to a different country to start a new life
    • If you’ve never moved countries, imagine flying thousands of miles to a place where you know nobody, and from scratch must make new friends, get a new education, understand & embrace a new culture… that seems more difficult to me than sticking at home and starting a new company!

4. From whom, if anyone, did you find support?

My Mom and Dad have always encouraged me. Even in the midst of my Mom fighting cancer, my parents was encouraging.

My Grandma was there for us all, and was happy I could spend more time at home.

So many friends, including my roommate at the time, were also great sources of support. Splitting the living costs with someone – something that wasn’t extremely common where I lived at the time – helped this all be even more realistic and possible. Perhaps even more than the money savings, the time spent just visiting and talking during this challenging time helped me stay positive and feel semi-normal.

5. Did that moment or experience change who you are?  If so, how?

Absolutely.

This experience redefined to me what I consider a serious challenge.

Traffic is bad? Not a big deal.

My flight got delayed and I won’t make it to where I was going on time? That’s fine, this is just a different experience now, it’s not life or death.

And so on.

I can stay positive throughout life much more easily, because I have a little closer experience to something that is truly scary.

At the start of this writing, I said I haven’t had too many serious challenges. That’s because of this major shift in what I viewed as a serious challenge.

Another way that experience changed me was the things I learned while creating the new company.

The company I started is focused on helping researchers and librarians read research papers.  Even with a four year undergrad degree, I was pretty unfamiliar with that world; I was the tech guy of the company, whereas my two co-founders knew about the world of research and libraries.

As I learned more about that world, I’ve gotten much better insight into how much work is done every day trying to push humanity forward, improving the world at large. 

There are tens of thousands of researchers around the globe, spending decades of their lives laser-focused on important problems.

Researchers are fighting deadly viruses.

Researchers are figuring ways out of economic hardships.

Researchers are developing more efficient ways to move around the globe.

Researchers are also trying to solve a million other challenges we face.

Better understanding Mr. Rogers

Learning about the world of research has surprisingly helped me better understand a quote from one of my favorite people growing up, Mr. Rogers.  

Mr. Rogers is known for saying, “look for the helpers.”  

I’ve better understood, perhaps now during Coronavirus more than ever, that the helpers are indeed everywhere.  

Researchers, medical professionals, people restocking grocery store shelves… so many are helping in these challenging times. 

If you feel like you could be doing more to help, think about what you can do to help those helpers. Right now in this Coronavirus pandemic, a big part of helping is staying at home; future challenges will likely involve different ways to help.

Whatever the challenge might be, we can be positive, be flexible, and help everyone embrace the constant change in our world.

Defining success for our Coronavirus / COVID-19 response, so we better know what actions to take & why

I think it’s safe to say that the latest novel Coronavirus, and COVID-19, the disease it causes, is on the minds of pretty much everyone around the world. In a time when the success of the internet allows many to stay within their preferred bubbles of things to ponder (I sure like pondering how Visual Effects Artists React to movies!), this is a rare moment where most of us are thinking about the same thing… and what an unfortunate thing to be thinking about.

This post started by text chatting on some posts with my cousin on Facebook (hi cousin! 👋 let me know if you want your name here). Below are some general thoughts, with my opinion towards the end, of how I see things today. I’m confident my opinion will change as we all learn more about this, but as I recently read, keeping a journal in turbulent times like this helps us understand:

  • how the world around us is changing
  • how we are changing

There are both economic and human life impacts related to COVID-19. I was talking with my cousin about what sort of balance we can strike between those concerns.

Social distancing, shelter-in-place, and lockdowns – oh my!

From China to Italy, Canada to Mexico, and all corners of the USA, countries have taken a variety of measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Discouraging gathering of more than 250 people (which has been reduced to much smaller over time), keeping indoors except for necessary life tasks… the levels of restriction have varied greatly, and there are a ton of articles and research papers out there about them.

These restrictions come with costs, both economic and human.

If nobody can go out, a huge number of businesses now see their income drastically drop. Restaurants are being limited to only doing take-out or delivery. Bars, gyms, retail stores, and other places that require physical presence are either being extremely limited or closed completely. In the USA, the NCAA college basketball tournament will not happen, and with that stopping, a ton of economic activity around that will halt, too.

Employees of impacted businesses will have negative consequences. They will likely either lose their paycheck, or at least get paid less than before. Some – perhaps most – will become unemployed while policies like shelter-in-place are active.

And we’re talking a lot of people impacted. The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics indicates millions of people are employed in jobs that will likely be negatively impacted. (I’d like to link to their webpage, but even their website is down for maintenance on the day I’m writing this!)

So millions of people might lose their job or have serious wage reduction. Crap.

The economic costs sound awful… what about the costs in human lives?

Both the economic costs and potential number of human deaths sound awful to me.

Currently mortality rate estimates of COVID-19 are between 1% to 4%, although that will eventually change as we learn more about this novel Coronavirus.

Epidemiologists are estimating between 20% to 60% of the US population will get COVID-19. At the low-end of these death estimates, we have 1% of 20% of 350 million, which is around 700,000 people dying. At the upper end, 4% of 60% of 350 million, is 8.4 million people dying. Even if 20% get it and 3% die, we have 2.1 million dead.

That many deaths are hard to comprehend. Here’s one way to think about it (thanks to Dustin for this idea!):

How much would you pay to prevent every US military death EVER?

Around 1.4 million deaths have happened in every military engagement the US has taken since the nation’s founding, including the Revolutionary War and the US Civil War.

According to epidemiologists, Coronavirus could very likely cause 2.1 million deaths.

How much would we have paid to save all those soldiers across all of those military engagements?

We greatly upended our economies for some of these engagements, and we still ended up with that many deaths. There were plenty of other reasons we fought, of course, but the cost in lives were less than what one single virus might cause in the year 2020.

Why compare a virus’s deaths to military deaths?

The USA’s military engagements were frequently done to keep threatened people from dying. A response to COVID-19 is done with the same intent.

Millions of people may potentially die, both in the USA and globally, because of either military fighting or COVID-19.

And in both cases, there is going to be economic levers that the USA must pull to help those negatively impacted.

One difference with COVID-19 vs a military fight: COVID-19 is a threat to every nation and person on Earth.

The “us vs. them” mentality – tribalism – is common for humans.

Frequently, the “us” and “them” are two groups of people.

With Coronavirus, the “us” is the entire human race, and “them” are these viruses. I hope that means this fight can bring all of humanity a little more together in the fight against a common, non-human enemy. A little like Independence Day perhaps.

May we all be able to look celebratory over a vanquished enemy like Will Smith could

How do we define success with COVID-19?

Military engagements for hundreds of years typically had fairly clear cut definitions of success: take over a geographical area, stop an encroaching force, etc.

These days, I must admit some military engagements success criteria seem much more difficult to discern. Defining success while fighting Coronavirus seems similarly difficult.

Why is it important to define success with COVID-19?

If there is no definition of “success,” no “win” state to the situation, then we’re stuck in a truly no-win scenario.

When the US decided to send a human to the moon, the leadership did not say we were going to try their best to, say, send rockets tens of thousands of miles above the Earth.

Leadership didn’t say they hoped to have a monkey survive going into the atmosphere and back to Earth. Nor even that they hoped we could send a person to survive a few hours outside of the oxygenated atmosphere of Earth.

Nope, we said we’re going to put a man on the moon.

That was bonkers. And it was a very clear definition of success.

What might success look like for COVID-19?

Different people will have different scenarios that they consider successful.

An economist might focus on some trade-off between economic impact and lives lost.

An epidemiologist might look at getting the basic reproductive rate of the virus under 1, so the virus will largely go away in the human population.

Success for the chief scientific advisor in the UK is currently 20,000 deaths, his “best case scenario.”

My favorite current definition of success: everyone who needs health care is not denied it

Something I propose as “success” that I think many people might agree with: during this time of pandemic, nobody with urgent healthcare needs is refused service.

The biggest public health fear right now for professionals – epidemioligsts and health care professionals alike – seems to be our healthcare system being overwhelmed.

If the hospital is full of people with COVID-19, then someone coming in with a heart attack may not get treatment, or may not get it very quickly. The next COVID-19 patient that walks in the doors may also not get treatment.

In a nightmarish scenario, a nurse or doctor must decide who gets help and who must llikely sacrifice their life, by asking, “Is this new patient that walked in the door more worthy to get help than someone who is already here?”

That nightmarish scenario is reality in Italy for many days. Its hospitals could not handle the patient load, and as some doctors have reported, the healthcare professionals literally had to choose who would live and who would die because their resources were 100% utilized.

Levers we can pull

We have levers we can pull to help people deal with economic damage.

These levers exist in the government at local, state, and federal levels. There are international organiations that can help. There’s also an appetite for this in the private section, including non-profit organizations. We can use the many resources we have – money and otherwise – to help get us back to some level of “success” in the economy.

We have zero levers to bring back a dead person.

And we’re talking tens of thousands, or possibly millions, of dead people from Coronavirus. Once someone is gone, there’s no reversing that.

And because we’re still learning about just how this Coronavirus impacts people, we don’t truly know how much of a cost might happen.

We still don’t know that much about this novel Coronavirus

We’re dealing with a virus that we don’t know much about, because it’s so new.

What we do know: the mortality rate so far seems to be between 10X to 40X more than seasonal influenza. Seasonal influenza has an average .1% mortality rate across all ages, and most epidemiologists are seeing COVID-19 to be in a range of 1% to 4%.

Availability of healthcare is part of that mortality rate; we must ensure our healthcare systems are not overwhelmed to skew towards the smaller side of that percentage.

And to do that, until we know more about the virus, we have to stop the spread of this virus. And we can do that by simply staying away from each other physically… although we can still see each other virtually, either by phone or internet.

My personal thoughts as of March 21, 2020

I am neither an epidemiologist nor a medical doctor. I build software for a living.

I’ve left my opinion on these trade-offs until the end both because I’m no expert in those fields, and because I’d rather just inform and give context for why I’m thinking certain ways than advocate for one particular viewpoint. But of course, even by simply trying to inform, I’m giving you some information at the cost of others. I have other things to do, even while I’m social distancing at home 😊

This post was not written with the intent of changing opinions, but rather to give context as to my current opinions.

I respect people having a different opinion than me, and I’ve found the best way to have conversations between people with different opinions is to come at it from a place of not trying to change the other person’s opinion. Instead, I give context and insight into my own thoughts, with the intent of building empathy between us. Typically that’s done in a back-and-forth conversation, and not in a one-way blog post… but you can leave a comment here if you’d like 😄

The estimates of death rates above are some of the evidence that leads me to supporting both the social distancing that’s been encouraged, and also the government taking some major actions – including payments to people, debt & rent & mortgage suspension, etc. – to fight this. I just read the UK government might pay 80% of workers’ wages.

With many epidemioligsts estimating a million deaths or more in the US alone if we don’t take serious action, approaching this with the mindset of a war-time mobilization seems appropriate to me. I wish we could have been more proactive, but we can only change what we do going forward. Thankfully, our mobilization can involve sitting at home and reading, phoning or video chatting friends and family, playing board games, reading, writing blog posts 😅 and more relatively safe, relatively fun things.

We’re all in this together. Let’s fight this horrible virus that wants to kill civilians and military veterans alike!

Coda: we’ll never really know what the best route is

One weird part of this discussion: we will never truly know what route was best.

If we do extreme lockdowns and manage to get out of this with, say, only 5000 dead in the USA, we’ll never really know how bad it could have gotten.

If we have 1 million deaths, we’ll never know for sure how much a stronger lockdown, or different response, might have produced.

We can’t run this experiment twice.

However, no matter what we do now, there will be future experiments. New viruses will develop and spread at some point in the future, as scientists and the CDC have warned us, and attempted to get us prepared for, over many years.

Hopefully this whole experience can be a wakeup call so that next time, we can be more prepared, and we will have a faster, more proactive response.

Until then, my mind always wants to go back to those levers: we can pull levers to help people with money, but we cannot pull levers to bring people back from the dead.

Machu Picchu and Peru costs & prices traveling in September 2019

I just got back from a fantastic trip to Peru with my wife and some good friends. If you’re thinking of going to Peru, we highly recommend it! But do you know how much Peru costs?

Researching before the trip resulted in fewer accurate & updated prices than we wanted. So here’s our numbers on what you can expect your trip to Machu Picchu and Peru to cost, accurate as of September 14, 2019. 

tl;dr

Have you come to this blog post and truly just want to know some ballpark prices, with zero additional context? I can do that:

a decent meal: ~$15/person
Machu Picchu tour guide: ~$25/person
private driver + English tour guide: ~$85/person/day
massage: ~$15/person
original 4″x6″ artwork: ~$9
Uber for taxis: ~$4/ride

I hope you want to learn more than these rough prices, though, since the context is important!

Some notes about our trip:

  • Travelled early September 2019
  • 4 adults
  • This was not a gap year / typical “backpacking” trip
    • We stayed at fairly nice hotels, and ate at generally nicer restaurants
  • 1 person spoke fluent Spanish, 1 person knew some Spanish, and 2 of us (my wife and I) know a little Duolingo (in other words – nothing)
  • All prices in Peruvian Soles prefixed with PEN below
    • You’ll also see them prefixed with S/. in Peru
  • All prices in US dollars prefixed with a $ below
    • Paying with USD is generally accepted for some traveler services, but Soles are always accepted

Machu Picchu & Aguas Calientes

Visiting Machu Picchu probably means you’ll stop in the town of Aguas Calientes (AC).

The bus between AC and the front door of Machu Picchu costs $24 for a roundtrip ticket. You can also get one-way tickets at a lower cost.

Hiring a tour guide for Machu Picchu is not necessary, unlike what’s mentioned here. However, our group really enjoyed having one for a day. After getting off the bus at the top, we found an officially-trained tour guide; they all have a particular uniform and a badge.

No planning was necessary – there are plenty of English-speaking tour guides available, and they will seek you out!

The tour guide price does not seem to be fixed. That means get your negotiating skills ready. The tour guide we ended up going with, Freddy, initially offered two prices:

  • $20 per person if the 4 of us joined a 6 to 8 person group
  • $30 per person if it’s just us 4

Before landing in Peru, we had read a private tour should be around $50 for two people. The $30/person offer resulted in us talking amongst ourselves, clearly looking & acting unsure. After a couple seconds of that, he came down to $25/person, and we took that.

Massage in Aguas Calientes

Many places offer massages in AC, and my wife and I thought that sounded great after a day of hiking Machu Picchu. We looked around at a few places, and picked one that was PEN140 (~$45) for two people. Lower prices were available, including under PEN100 for two people. However, we thought we’d pay a little more, hoping that would result in a better experience.

After having the massage, we think any of the places would have been about the same. The massage was comparable to a low-cost massage in the USA, but we doubted everything on the massage table was changed / cleaned between massages. At a minimum, our pillow definitely looked less-than-spotless.

Sacred Valley, from Cusco to Ollantaytambo

We only had two days in the Sacred Valley, so we wanted a tour guide to take us to a number of places. We decided on Peru Trek 4 Good (check out their TripAdvisor reviews), and we were very glad we did. Although the name is a little strange, and their official website doesn’t look too professional, the experience was excellent.

Yure, the owner of the company, setup our trip over email before we arrived in Peru. We paid everything upfront on a website using our credit card. Our tour guide, Virgilio, took us all over for two days, and we honestly felt a little like family by the end of the tour.

A private, 1.5 day tour for the four of us cost $490 ($440 quoted price, plus additional fees when purchasing online), plus a tip. This was nearly the lowest price we were quoted. The first day was 8am – 2pm, the second 9am – 5pm, and day two included dropping us off in Ollantaytambo.

In Ollantaytambo, we went to see the ruins overlooking the town. We hired a guide at the ruins, and it cost $45 for the four of us, including tip. The tour was roughly 2 hours, and overall we thought it was worth it.

Original Art in Pisac

We stopped in the Pisac market on Sunday. We read it was the best day of the week to visit. Now that we’ve visited, we think the day of the week doesn’t matter; it’s roughly the same as markets we saw in Aguas Calientes and Cusco.

However, we found one painter – Germain Ninantay (no website, unfortunately!) – creating lovely artwork right there in the market. We picked up a 4″x6″ original for roughly PEN25 (~$9). Our friends wanted a much bigger, fairly wide painting, initially quoted at PEN700, but was negotiated down to PEN400 (~$133). Alas, my friends found out it wouldn’t fit in their luggage, so they opted for a smaller one for ~PEN200 (~$67).

Transportation

We tried to arrange most of our transportation to or from airports and train stations ahead of time. Most hotels will help you arrange a ride before you arrive – contact them via email, which helps break down language barriers since both ends can use Google Translate or ask a friend to translate 😊

The way we did it, we never had to haggle with a single person over transportation cost. The price was explicit ahead of time, and nobody ever tried to bump up the price when we arrived at our destination.

Once we were in a city or town, we used Uber to get around. Funny enough, an actual taxi cab showed up as our Uber vehicle! All of our drivers were friendly, and the experience was just like using Uber or Lyft in the USA or any other country. Getting rides from your phone like this is one of those times when I truly feel like I’m living in the future.

You’ll see the price in the Uber app, but we typically got 5 to 10 minute rides for around PEN12 ($4), depending on time of day and demand.

Lima Airport

We were told Uber drivers are not allowed to pickup from the Lima airport, so we went with Green Taxi, which was recommended on some blog posts.

The cost from the Lima Airport to Miraflores was a fixed PEN60 ($20) from Green Taxi or other taxi companies in the airport, so pick whichever seems nicest to you. We sort of regretted choosing Green Taxi because one of the people for them in the airport was pretty frustrating, but our driver was lovely, so overall we were happy with them.

We didn’t book a round-trip back to the airport, but we asked our driver on the way to Miraflores if he could pick us up for our return flight. Speaking Spanish definitely helped! We did have to remind the driver that we should get a 10% off discount because we were getting the roundtrip with the same driver, and he agreed.

Another likely benefit of using an official taxi service at the Lima Airport: a quick trip through vehicle security at the airport. There’s some sort of security checkpoint, but our taxi cab went through it very quickly, and let us be picked up and dropped off very close to the terminal.

Eating

We had some lovely meals, and were quite happy with their reasonable prices.

An entree at a lower-priced spot might be PEN12 ($4), and even mid-tier restaurants will likely have some decent options around PEN18 ($6). Non-alcoholic drinks are around PEN5 (~$2), and an alcohol beverage about PEN12 (~$4). A decent meal for $15 or less is very attainable.

Get a nice meal for around PEN75 ($25) per person, including a non-alcoholic drink.

One example: at Mango’s on our last night in Lima, my wife and I paid $48 total for two entrees, a bottle of water, and a Pisco sour.

“Free Pisco sours!”

You’ll be offered “free Pisco sours!” in touristy areas. As long as you order a main course, they typically are indeed free, although they’re usually smaller versions of a full-priced drink. But this might be perfect, because if you’re drinking at elevations between 6,000 to 11,000 feet, a little alcohol goes a long way.

Coming soon: how Pisco sours (and other, non-alcoholic beverages) might impact your vacationing at Peru’s high altitudes!

Have questions about any of our other costs? Leave a comment!

Happy 63rd Birthday to Mom, who fought for women’s representation and recognition

Photo of the printed book titled Glueckstal Lutheran Church, written by Linda Becker Happy (a few days belated!) Birthday to my Mom, who would be 63 this year. “Women didn’t count” – three words that drove my Mom to action. Her father told her that in 1995, in his good-humored, insightful, smile-curling way of delivering a line, a technique my Mom also cultivated over the years.
“Women didn’t count” was not my Grandpa’s personal opinion. Far from it, especially considering the strength – both physically and mentally – of his wife. Grandpa was, instead, pointing out how this was a fact of life in the late 1800s and early 1900s… at least for certain subjects. Tombstones were one part of life where it held. Rather than, say, “Mr. Joe Smith & Mrs. Beverly Smith”, some tombstones would simply say, “Mr. & Mrs. Joe Smith.” Why? “Women didn’t count.” She wrote about the chat with her Dad, and many more stories, in her book about Glueckstal Lutheran Church. I’m very proud she completed it. After lots of effort researching records, sleuthing family connections, conducting interviews, and writing, my Mom accomplished her goal of ensuring the women’s names and contributions of the early days of the Glueckstal Lutheran Church in North Dakota were remembered. I’m so glad my Mom wanted to ensure people were recognized for their efforts, even when the standard of the past was not so equitable. Happy Birthday Mom, I love you ❤️

An argument for paper ballots in voting, thanks to Apple’s iPhones & billions of dollars

Note: This is basically a long version of this excellent xkcd comic about electronic voting

Voting is the cornerstone of democracy, including the USA’s representative democracy.

If our voting breaks, then our democracy breaks (or at least has a much higher chance of breaking).

If you agree with me on that idea – which I think is uncontroversial – then we want to make sure our voting system stays healthy. There are lots of ways for it to break, but since I spend a lot of my life thinking about computers & technology, I’d like to focus on the ways it could break with electronic voting.

Electronic voting could be compromised in ways that would change votes without leaving any kind of trail.

We wouldn’t even know the votes were changed.

Votes could theoretically be changed by people thousands of miles away.

Someone outside of the USA could change electronic votes cast in the USA. That means law enforcement may not be able to pursue consequences against the person breaking the law, since they don’t live there.

There are lots of other ways electronic voting could go wrong (poor quality or miscalibrated touchscreens, broken physical buttons, confusing user interface design, etc.), but those at least have manifestations that other people can see.

I’m instead going to focus on the much more invisible behavior (but that leaves very lasting changes on a country) of someone changing electronic votes without any record that the votes were changed.

And this, surprisingly, brings me to Apple.

Apple has a lot of money & resources

Apple’s market value is currently the biggest in the world: US$961 billion.

In the third quarter of 2019, Apple posted US$53.8 billion of revenue, and US$10billion of profit. The third quarter is typically Apple’s lowest-selling quarter of the year, too.

Apple has US$210 billion of cash (or marketable securities) on-hand, ready to spend at a moment’s notice.

Is it clear that Apple has the resources to do things in the best way possible, and acquire the best and brightest talent in the world?

Yet it was just reported this week that Apple’s iPhones had some security flaws that were exploitable in the wild for years.

How were these exploits triggered? An iPhone owner simply had to visit the wrong website to be a victim.

What were the consequences of visiting a website exercising this flaw? Your private information – including contacts and text messages – could be sent off your phone to the attacker.

The biggest company on earth couldn’t make an unhackable system

Apple makes hundreds of billions of dollars from iOS and iPhones, and Apple tries very hard to have top-notch security.

Yet even Apple could not prevent some massive security flaws from being in the wild for iPhones. (Android has plenty of issues, too, and arguably worse ones – I’m just focusing on Apple, the world’s biggest company, right now)

This is not surprising news to anyone who builds software and has to think even slightly about security.

Software security is wildly difficult

Success in the world of keeping software secure is pretty much impossible.

Apple, and anyone else trying to build secure software, must get it right every time, forever, fighting attacks from potentially everywhere on Earth, to reach success.

People trying to break into a system only have to break it once to reach success.

Can you do something right forever?

Has any single person, or any group of people, in the history of Earth, gotten something right forever?

Because getting something right forever never happens, it shouldn’t shock us that Apple, Google, or any other software company sometimes has a breach. It sure would be nice to know who did the breaching, but that’s sometimes impossible to tell, too.

The latest reports don’t say who might have taken advantage of these Apple security vulnerabilities. However, they could have been used by people who did not put themselves into any sort of harm.

Virtual crime is less risky

Before computers were so central to so many of our lives, crime typically required someone risking their physical safety or other consequences.

Stealing a loaf of bread or a car required being physically present to take it away, risking physical punishment or direct arrest by law enforcement seeing you committing the crime.

Robbing someone’s wallet requires some level of physical risk for the robber. In the USA, a robber never knows if the person they’re stealing from may have pepper spray or even a stronger weapon on their person. There is physical risk to the person, not to mention the risk of the legal system’s consequences if they get caught by law enforcement.

But now computers run the world, and stealing from them involves a whole lot less risk.

There are certainly still potential legal system and criminal justice consequences… but when you can commit the crime from the comfort of your couch, that risk drops a lot. If you’re a savvy computer criminal, you may be able to delete a lot of the traces that you were ever there. Plus, the legal arguments and precedent for computer crimes consequences are young. There’s jurisprudence for physical stealing and battery and robbery dating back hundreds of years, but computers haven’t even been around a hundred years, and haven’t truly been central to the world until the last couple of decades.

So if you want to create a little havoc but keep yourself at a low risk of facing any significant consequences, computer crime seems like a low-risk way to achieve it.

Minimize voting’s vulnerability to less risky crime

Voting shapes government, & government has massive power.

The world’s biggest company can’t build an unbreakable system.

The companies and government agencies tasked with state or local elections are nowhere close to the size of Apple, and have nowhere close to their money and resources.

What if I told you there’s a simple, low-cost step every state in the nation can take to put a high degree of certainty that votes cannot be falsified by someone sitting in the comfort of their house on an entirely different continent?

Use paper ballots.

Like we did in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, and today in many states.

That’s it.

Yes, paper ballots could still be subject to fraud, but that’s pretty darn difficult to pull off at scale, and a recent attempt failed. The effort to do that requires:

  1. more people to pull off (likely a lot more people, all working in concert)
  2. more potential for physical harm to someone, or to be physically stopped from doing it
  3. more potential for legal consequences (you had to have been physically present in a voting place to change the votes, and to do that means you likely live in that neighborhood, so you’ll likely not leave the country the very next day)

Just use paper ballots.

I am not the only one to have this idea. I am just repeating it so there’s one more voice out there.

What can you do right now?

  1. Check here to see if your state says it is “without paper trail”
  2. If your state has no paper trail, call your state senators and representatives and tell them to change that.

A simple, single phone call will help some.

Finding out if there are any laws in your state legislature for switching to a paper trail, and then going to the state capital and testifying on that, will help more.

Getting involved with your local election board can also help, and will amplify your voice in the voting process.

How many states have no paper trail?

As of this writing, 12 states (25% of the USA’s states) appear to have no significant paper trail:

  • Delaware*
  • Florida
  • Georgia*
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana*
  • New Jersey*
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina*
  • Tennessee
  • Texas

Those states combined have 102 million people.

Roughly 1/3 of the US population has their votes unnecessarily vulnerable to fraud.

Every single one of these states that has no paper trail is putting our democracy at risk.

States with an * are particularly at risk, as noted in this article.

Electronic voting is no panacea for the democratic process; it may require fewer people to count votes, but do we want fewer people involved in the voting process, or more? More people means less chance that any small group of people can be bad actors, falsifying voters or doing other questionable things in person.

Get paper ballots in your state. Technologists everywhere will thank you.

Late night pizza near Brigham Circle in Boston

October 2019 update: I’ve created the Boston Pizza Blog, and put a copy of this story up there!

After a pre-St. Patrick’s Day visit to Flann’s with Roberto and friends, I just visited the triumvirate of late night pizza in the Brigham Circle area of Boston. Join my stroll of the three pizza places open late.

Where did I go?

  1. Crispy Dough
  2. Tremont House of Pizza
  3. Penguin Pizza

Special mention to Il Mondo, which is currently moving locations and is not yet re-opened. If they had been open, I may have gone straight there and then straight home.

Let’s break down each spot.

Crispy Dough

True to its name, this had some nice, crispy pizza. It was fairly empty at 11:00pm the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day – just like every place I visited – which meant I got my slice with little waiting. Service was friendly and fast.

I got the buffalo chicken pizza, a staple in the area. It had more white sauce than some places (Il Mondo), but it was tastier than some of the white sauces I’ve had, too.

Slice was pretty good sized. This was my second time here, and the pizza was on par with my first visit.

Official website, and Yelp

Tremont House of Pizza

I had been meaning to go here for a long time, yet tonight was my first time venturing in to this spot with ample seating space. I chose pepperoni instead of cheese (the other option), and it was quickly available and crumbling in my mouth.

The dough was distinctly different. It had a much more buttery and crumbly consistency. It was something I haven’t really had before, which was a nice change of pace.  It’s unlike Dominos, Pizza Hut, or any of the local places I’ve had in Boston so far. The edge of the dough was a typical crispy crust, though.

If you want a different kind of dough, check out Tremont. It’s a little more dough than the others, but still has a nice taste.

Official website, and Yelp

Penguin Pizza

I spend many a Monday here for wing night after hitting the gym, but I’ve always enjoyed their pizza the few times I’ve picked it up for takeout. This was my first time having a slice in the restaurant, though, and it did not disappoint.

A gigantic piece of pepperoni was hanging off the sides of the plate I got, alongside a nice Irish Whiskey that the bartender mentioned was new.

Service at Penguin is fantastic as always, plus it’s the only place of the three where you can have either a beer or some harder beverages, depending on your preference. Dough is similar to crispy dough, but still distinct, and the slice size was bigger.

Official website, and Yelp

Which was best?

I’d be a fool to choose between these three, since they all offer a delicious slice in the later evening hours. Since I tend to be nearer to Penguin, I’ll probably tend to go there, but I will not hesitate to try Tremont again after a good first experience. Crispy Dough has a few locations around Boston, and I’d be happy to go back there, too.

Penguin probably wins just because you can get a tasty beverage from some great bartenders, but you can’t go wrong with any of these spots.

Follow-up: not-as-late-night pizza

I wanted to check out Chacho’s Pizza last night, but they close at 11pm. However, I tried it today – and it’s pretty good! Much more dough than the other three spots, but a nice taste. If you want the most dough, go straight to Chacho’s.

Yelp

The US Immigration System Caused a Smart, Talented, Hard-Working Person to Leave the Country

Happy almost 2018!

One thing I’ll do next year is occasionally try to help explain US immigration policy, and also understand it better for myself. I’ve got a story below that can help educate.

Because I was born in the US, I’ve never learned much about immigration law and policies. I think most of my friends born in the US have similar experience.

I’ll talk about immigration policy much beyond the topic of illegal border crossings, because the typical way people immigrate into the US is through a legal channel.

Story Time

This is a true story about legal immigration.

This happened very recently.

Picture a young adult who comes to the US to get an undergrad college degree. That person stays here for four years under a student visa, paying sales tax the whole time, pumping money into our economy by buying food/services/etc. A student visa allows this student to make a little spending money by working somewhere on campus (the kitchen, computer support, etc), and if they made enough, they would even pay income tax (but usually they wouldn’t, because those jobs don’t pay very much).

That young adult, after graduating with a 4-year STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degree, wants to stay in the US. But now that adult has two options:

  1. Go back to school for a master’s or PhD
  2. Find a company to sponsor a work visa for him at the cost of thousands of dollars (along with a variety of other requirements levied on that company).

The number of work visas are limited by the US government. So this person who has gotten a 4-year degree in a science/technology field, and who wants to stay in the USA, simply might not be able to, because there’s an element of luck that determines if they get to stay here or not.

Some of the luck involves:

  • finding a company willing to take a risk of thousands of dollars on trying to hire someone that they may not actually be able to hire.
  • getting lucky enough to get drawn by the US’s work visa lottery

The specific person I’m talking about above was lucky enough to get a company as a sponsor. But after six years – six years of paying income taxes, social security taxes, six years of pumping effort into our economy – the person did not get lucky enough to get residency. another piece of luck involved in being able to stay in the USA. That also means that person who paid income taxes and social security taxes will never see that money again.

This person, who spent 10 years in the US and is a very smart, hard-working person, now has no choice but to go to another country. And this smart person has decided they will go to a country that accepts them without such elements of luck; Australia and Canada both have merit-based, no-luck-required immigration systems.

The US just lost a hard-working science employee.

I think someone who has spent 10 years in the US, getting an education, paying taxes, working a full-time job, and generally being a productive member of society, should get to stay in the US if they want. No luck required, just hard work. Merit-based.

Do you agree?

Today, over half the U.S. House of Representatives “General Speeches” were unrelated to the work of governing

Today I learned that when the US House of Representatives session opens, there are “General Speeches,” where it appears reps can get 1 minute at the start to talk about literally anything.
 
What if, every day at your job, every teammate of yours could have one minute to talk about anything and take up the time of your *entire* workplace?
And that it isn’t about work, but about absolutely anything at all?
 
Here’s what each one-minute speech was been about today:
  1. Congratulating a college football team for its recent win
  2. Asking Congress to not repeal Obamacare without a replacement, with a personal story from a constituent who would be negatively impacted
  3. Talking about the Detroit Car Show
  4. Asking Congress to not repeal Obamacare without a replacement
  5. A first-year Representative talking about how happy he is to be a member of the House
  6. (I missed writing down what it was, but it was about a law that will be up for discussion in the House soon)
  7. Commemorate law enforcement appreciation day
  8. Talking about moments of silence about victims of gun violence
  9. Talking about increased premiums due to Obamacare
  10. Talking about increased premiums due to Obamacare, with a personal story
  11. Talking about building a Mexican border wall and making Mexico pay for it
  12. Commemorate law enforcement appreciation day
  13. Pay tribute to a county judge who recently died
  14. Talking about increased costs due to Obamacare, with a story of a leukemia patient in Texas who has to pay more for medicine
  15. Recognize band students who played music at a commemorative event for Pearl Harbor
  16. Recognize the 10th anniversary of Friends of St. Jude Miami
  17. Congratulating a football player who played last night
  18. Congratulated a Florida university’s engineering team who won a robotic competition
 
Shouldn’t the House talk about the work of governing in these public addresses to the rest of the House, and not congratulate people from their district?
 
Press releases or press conferences held by the Congresspeople on their own time seem like the completely appropriate venue for thanking and recognizing people.
 
Taking up the time of literally the entire house of representatives – 435 people – to say they loved that football game last night seems beyond comical.
At least half the speeches above seem absolutely unnecessary to the business of governance.
Since each speech was roughly 1 minute, and there was also time and effort in between in each speech, that took at least 18 minutes of the House’s time. 18 minutes * 435 people = 130.5 person-hours of time spent on just random stuff.
What do you think?

Let’s get beyond Trump and Clinton and talk about the problems we want to solve

The echo chamber of social media is strong, and this is our first election where the algorithms from Facebook (and Twitter to a lesser degree) are truly having an impact on people’s feelings.

I agree with a friend of mine who said he’s glad the country is ready to put this behind us. But the biggest work yet is ahead: bridging the gap between people who are supporting Trump in this election, and those who have felt very hurt by his comments.

Rather than simply shaming people for supporting one candidate or the other, I think talking about the places where people want improvements is a great starting point.

The biggest points I’ve heard from people who are in favor of Trump are:

  1. Shutting down (temporarily, as I am frequently reminded by his supporters) Muslims entering the USA
  2. Building a border wall (apparently just on the southern border)
  3. A vague desire for stronger military leadership

I’d love to address these one at a time:

Shutting Down a Religion Coming to the USA is Particularly Unamerican

Because religious freedom has been an absolute cornerstone of the USA since its inception, I simply cannot condone this idea.

However, I can understand what I believe the underlying idea is behind doing this: keeping people safer, and reducing crime. Improving our screening process is an ongoing thing that, perhaps, could use more specific focus over the next four years.

(Yes, recently Pence said that’s not the plan anymore. I haven’t heard Trump say that, though, and it makes me incredibly wary about someone attempting to roll back a controversial cornerstone of an election platform just 30 days before an election.)

Building a Wall on the Southern Border

As pointed out by various critics of this idea (most entertainingly by John Oliver), it is a huge amount of expense for something that will likely be ineffective. If we are concerned about border security, using technology in intelligent ways could help accomplish this much better. Tech-oriented jobs are the high-paying jobs we want in the US, so let’s put a focus there, rather than some monstrosity of a civil engineering project that would extend the reach and impact of the federal government on land in the area, rather than more elegantly figuring out where people breaking the law are at.

Even better, why are people illegally crossing the borders? Drugs is no small part of that. There are so many changes to our drug laws that we could do to reduce the reasons people are crossing the border illegally.

Desire for Stronger Military Leadership

I’ve heard arguments that Hillary is a warmonger, yet that she will follow Obama’s approach to much foreign policy, which, at least in the case of Syria, has been fairly weak. Foreign policy is an incredibly careful sort of thing to pull off successfully, and I think unless any of us have experience doing this, we cannot really pretend to understand all the complexities at work.

Someone who has served as the Secretary of State has experience well beyond anything us armchair quarterbacks can imagine.

My hopes, which come from the world of tech startups

I hope with discussions focused on the problem, we can get to happy mediums where we are addressing problems with solutions that solve the problems we want to fix.

In the world of software development and tech startups, it’s all about focusing on one specific problem, and relentlessly asking questions until it’s solved in an intelligent way. It’s not about taking the first idea someone proposes; it’s about trying something quickly, seeing how it works rapidly, then changing as we get feedback. Hopefully we can try things like that, and get input from both sides (because hey, my solutions certainly aren’t to everyone’s taste, but let’s talk through and actually try something… something which we can roll back much more easily than simply rejecting a religion or undertaking a massive, debt-massing project).

Pregnancy should not be an inconvenience for a business

At the first US presidential debate of 2016, Hillary Clinton pointed out:

this is a man who … has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers

Donald Trump responded by saying:

I never said that.

Actually, he did.

I quickly posted a link to that article on Facebook last night, primarily to show that he just lied during the debate.

However, that post sparked a pretty long Facebook discussion, with my friends and family weighing in about how pregnancy, vacation, and other things may or may not be considered “inconveniences” to a business.

Most people agree that expressing this sentiment is a dumb thing for a Presidential candidate to say, because it’s a fairly controversial thing to say. But some people who think that still agree with the sentiment that pregnancy is an inconvenience.

I kind of did, too, but I don’t anymore. Here’s why.

Words Have Consequences

When someone speaks, those words can have repercussions. The words and language we use shape our opinions and transform how we experience the world. Whether we speak or think those words, they matter.

If you disagree with those statements, maybe Tony Robbins can change your mind. Or The Linguistic Society, The Guardian, or this peer-reviewed journal article I found on Google.

Political Correctness and Words

Like John Cleese, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and other comedians, I don’t think we should stop ourselves from saying words if there is even the slightest chance that they may anger or otherwise disturb someone else.

I think at the heart of the backlash against the idea of “political correctness” is that people don’t want to be told what words they can use.

And hey, we live in the USA, so thanks to the first amendment, your words are whatever you want them to be, free from governmental reproach! Just avoid libel and slander.

But words still have consequence.

Using the word “inconvenience” to describe a business’s view of pregnancy immediately implies something negative about that pregnancy.

Here’s two definitions of inconvenience:

  1. trouble or difficulty caused to one’s personal requirements or comfort.
  2. a cause or instance of trouble or difficulty.

Both of these are negative. No person or business wants trouble or difficulty.

Do we – as a country – want the words used to describe pregnancy with regards to a business to be negative?

Furthermore, is it accurate? Is a pregnancy a cause of trouble or difficulty for the business?

Because using the word “inconvenient” to describe pregnancy for a business is certainly a cause of trouble or difficulty for a pretty large number of people: women.

If Pregnancy is a Business Negative, What About the People Getting Pregnant?

Last I checked, only women can have babies. (science, get on that)

If a business only considers pregnancy a negative thing – and hence, uses words like “inconvenience” to describe pregnancy – women will always be at a disadvantage, because they are the only ones who may have this negative thing happen to them.

Maybe women can vocally let their hiring manager know they plan to never have a child to avoid any perceived negatives. But I’m pretty sure the USA does not want to become the nation producing no new children.

If many people are concluding that pregnancy is an inconvenience to business, should we perhaps consider changing incentives so that pregnancies can be at worst neutral, and hopefully beneficial, to a business?

Tax Credits

Business priorities are generally all about money. Family priorities are not.

Family priorities are a whole mix of pursuits of happiness.  But families still need some money to live and pursue that happiness, and when having a child, yet more money is needed.

The US government has something for families which it doesn’t have for businesses: a child tax credit.

That’s because we the people understand a child is a financial responsibility, and we want to help with raising that child, because it’s a valuable contribution to society.

If businesses got a similar benefit to help with that financial responsibility, maybe we could banish the word “inconvenience” when talking about a business’s attitude towards pregnancy, which could help reduce gender discrimination in hiring. Remember, discrimination over pregnancy is illegal.

I’d love to see us spend tax dollars on something that:

  • eliminates one avenue of gender discrimination
  • helps our economy
  • incentivizes raising happy, healthy children

I’d sure prefer that over a new football stadium, increased military spending, or more welfare.

If that’s what it takes to eliminate the idea or language that pregnancy is “inconvenient” to business, perhaps we should consider it.

The alternative is for our economy to always view people who can bear children as having the opportunity to introduce a negative – an inconvenience – into its plans.  And I sure don’t like conflating a pregnancy with an inconvenience.

P.S. – Imagine if…

After writing this up and running it by a few friends, one friend suggested this scenario:

Imagine a boss saying to an employee, “Your pregnancy is really an inconvenience to this company.”

How quickly do you think that lawsuit would be over?