Surfing the Balmer Peak

There’s a joke common among software engineers, based on an xkcd comic, titled The Balmer Peak. Stories surrounding the Balmer Peak have evolved in the wake of the comic, stories I could do no justice here. Like legends of olde (so long ago that English-speaking people and French-speaking people got along and shared a silent ‘e’ in their written language, but still commonly hated the Dutch), stories spread from one epic moment in time out through hamlets and villages across the land. In this case, the hamlets are big companies and the villages are startups. Some repeated the tales in taverns and markets. Others heard the tales and took it upon themselves to seek to achieve such greatness.

Often, when working in an oppressive corporate sweatshop or your buddy’s sweaty garage, groups of geeks band together and form strong bonds during times of great struggle. When there’s a sudden defect in a major system that results in thousands of dollars of revenue loss per minute, the operations team that manages the resolution is battle-hardened in the process. Like any hardy band of warrior poets, their souls annealed by the tragedy of their plight, they write epic tales of their heroic triumph. As employees migrate from one job to another, they carry with them a vocal account of the history of their prior employers, including such heroic tales of “wicked all-nighters spent doing shots and jamming out code.” I salute these champions, for they have caught a glimpse of something others only hear about in pub legends.

These brave warriors have ridden the Peak, if even for a short time. Moreover, they have given us the wisdom of their example, so that we might be inspired to learn this herculean skill. To surf the Balmer Peak is to invite equal parts prosperity and catastrophe. It should not be undertaken without a guide (and a good lawyer). Just remember who wins whether you do or not, and incidentally, tip your bartender.

Note: the Balmer Peak applies only to programming skill. All other skills will effectively drop to zero during the experience. Participants may require a nanny (and, once again, a good lawyer).

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Dear Universe

Dear Universe,

I know we’ve had our moments of doubt and pain, but I thought we were on pretty good terms. I’ve recently learned that there’s a fair chance that the Mayans predicted that you will be closing up shop on my birthday. Thanks for thinking of me. I’m flattered you’d plan your final moments to coincide with the anniversary of my birth. That sounds like a story fit for warrior poets. Still, I wish you’d consulted me before making the final arrangements. I would have looked at this year quite a bit differently had I known of your humble birthday gift of the end of existence (and several of the years leading up to it, especially 2009 which can fuck right off).

So, now that I have a mere 48hrs left to enjoy existence, sleeping seems really damned inconvenient. I’d really rather not spend my last days tweaked out on an unholy combination of intravenous caffeine and RedBull. Funny how 4hrs sleep sounds like barely enough when you’re flying across the country, yet woefully irresponsible when that’s nearly 10% of one’s remaining time in existence. Perspective is a sometimes cruel manifestation of personal growth.

Maybe next time you decide to end it all, you could at least give us some sort of warning. Folks seem keen on natural disasters as “acts of god” or signs of the impending apocalypse. I, for one, always thought it would somehow involve multiple super-volcanoes and devastating earthquakes, possibly accompanied by zombies, but maybe you’re going for something more subtle. Maybe the first season of Jersey Shore was your two-minute warning, and we missed the memo. Well, ain’t that a bitch? Hey, at least we got zombies. And who knew zombies were into spray tanning? Did not see that coming…

Thanks,

Aubrey

ps. thanks for, well, everything. 🙂

48hrs in San Francisco

Thursday 4:30am, wake up. Shower. Dress. Feed cat. Prepare for shuttle service, scheduled for pick-up between 4:50 and 5:10. Lock front door. Walk out to curb. Wait for shuttle.

5:15am, answer phone. Shuttle driver hoping to arrive in 10mins. Wait some more. Six vehicles pass.

5:25am, see shuttle turn the wrong way down my street. Sigh. Watch as shuttle proceeds down two blocks. Answer phone. “I can see your van. I’m across from the Publix two blocks west of you.” Shuttle stops in middle of street to load my bag and my sleepy self. Driver awkwardly attempts to open door for me. Door locked. Driver walks hurriedly back around to unlock. I help myself into the van. Drive to airport, not a direct route. Sigh again.

6:50am, flight departs TPA. Sleep.

8:30ish, land in Charlotte. Change planes. Board plane to SFO. Pilot claims 30-45min early arrival. Bonus. Meditate 3hrs. OM. Take out laptop, do some minor repairs to an app, while neighbor snores loudly. Land early. Meet Tom, ride to hotel. Thank Tom.

3:30ish, check into hotel. Shower. Dress. California club for lunch. Delicious. Remark to bartender that a beer would be great, but probably not a good idea for an interview.

4:20pm, cab to interview. Cab driver is a musician. Tells me about his endeavors training an 18yr old singer with “magnificent pipes.”

4:30pm, interview begins. Programming puzzles. Problem solving exercises. Design pattern discussion. Best practices. Pitfalls. Best and worst parts of working with iOS. Smart people. Great synergy.

9:30pm, interview ends. Drive to restaurant. Town Hall. First things first. Imperial IPA. Delicious. Conversation about location services. Demo app I built last month. More synergy. Best prosciutto I’ve ever had. Flounder Ă©touffĂ©. Biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen. Okra looks curiously like jalapeño. Excellent flavor. Almost spicy enough. Bill delivered in old book. Nice touch.

11:30pm, dinner ends. Goodbye to potential co-workers. Txt ex-wife to express lack of time or bandwidth for video chat with son. Sigh. Walk five blocks to hotel. Street smells of urine. Surprisingly chilly. Walk faster.

12am, arrive at hotel. Meeting with venture partner over bourbon. Still no investors. Bummer. New prospects for funding. I’ll believe it when I see it.

1am, drunk. Tweet about long fucking day. Feel like rock star. Search for code example. Send email to interviewer. “Thanks for an awesome day. Here’s that code I mentioned.” Gratitude. Sleep.

Friday 8am, wake. Back to sleep. Fucked up dreams. Spiked bat across the face.

8:30am, wake again. Shower. Relax. Wait for friends to wake. Twitter. Email. More twitter. More minor updates to app.

10:15am, friends awake. Negotiate breakfast venue. Wait. Confirm breakfast spot. Dottie’s True Blue CafĂ©. Rejoice.

11:30am, check out of hotel. Walk toward Dottie’s. Street smells of worse things than urine, but indeterminate. Consider taking up cigarettes to kill sense of smell.

11:45am, arrive at cafĂ©. Line out the door. Twenty people at least. Report to friends. Consider alternative venue. Bill is still 30mins out. Get in line. Line moves quickly. Agree to stick with Dottie’s.

11:55am, Tom arrives. Bullshit about sights and smells of the Tenderloin. Tom remarks that folks in line are upwardly mobile, yet passersby are ancient hippies and unsavory types. Common for the Tenderloin. Line moves.

12:10pm, front of line. Host says “all parties must be present to seat you.” We counter “we’ll order for him.” 4-top at the back. Lovely artwork on the walls. Surly waitress. “Can we substitute pancake for toast?” “NO.” Chuckle. Tea, Earl Gray, Hot. Tom remarks “tastes like dishwater.” Order. Three egg omelette with jack cheddar and andouille. Pancakes and bacon for Bill. Omelette with ham and cheddar for Tom.

12:30pm, Bill’s food arrives. Bill arrives seconds later. Surly waitress pours coffee into half full tea cup, narrates her action ironically. Tom says “not a problem. tastes like dishwater anyway.” Omelettes arrive. Delicious. So much cheese. Bill comments “it was cheesy the first time you said it.”

1pm, drive back to interview location. Quick follow-up with Sammy. First time meeting her. She is totally cute. Unexpected parting gift. Toys to play with when I get home. Minor employment application mixup. Ironically, will resolve email snafu via email. “Nice to meet you! We’ll be in touch.” Gratitude.

1:05pm, search for Tom’s car. Notice used condom on street. Obviously been there a while. Chuckle. Flight is delayed. Drive to Tom’s house. Conference call in the car. Tom handles it like a pro.

2ish, fix some test code while Tom has conference call. Tom puts out fires, resolves project drama. Build app with new changes. Distribute build to team. Broken. Derp. Txt from Marvin. Build is borked. Rebuild. Redistribute. Win. Notice weird behavior. More test code. Shit. Forgot to check in to flight. Will have shitty seats. Confirmation number doesn’t work.

2:55pm, start to wind down and tidy up. Drive to airport. Thanks Tom!

3:15pm, try to checkin via kiosk. Wrong information. Flight info is weird. Wait for customer service. Surly attendant. Flight delay will cause me to miss connecting flight. Reassigned without telling me about it. Grumble. Instructed to see supervisor. Surly supervisor says “this is the first class line. Talk to that guy.” Less surly supervisor says “no flights available.” Rerouted through Phoenix. First class upgrade for that leg. Win. Red eye from Phoenix to Tampa. Lose. Net neutral. Tweet about it.

3:45pm, wait. Send update to friend who is picking me up in Tampa. “Arriving 6:15am tomorrow”

4pm, people watching. Hilarious twitter conversations. Even funnier IM conversations. These are definitely going in my coffee table book of hilarious IM threads. Happy. Unexpected delay is opportunity to relax and write this post.

4:54pm, find random banana in a bamboo planter next to my seat. Tweet about it.

5pm, cute chick with limp and cane sits next to me. Adjusts ankle braces. Waves cane at red cap. Threatens to make a scene. I half-jokingly advise her not to make a scene in an airport. Red caps see to her needs.

5:03pm, cute chick rides past me in wheelchair, pushed by red cap, says to me “don’t be jealous.” Winks. Nice touch. More people watching. More writing. Smile at pretty girls who walk past me. Some smile back.

7:41pm, kids playing next to me on the bench. Older sister pulls younger brother off seat by his legs, both giggling. Adorable.

7:54pm, random laughter of passersby makes me happy. So many cute girls in this town!

8pm, yawn. Already starting to feel tired, but still hours to go

8:20pm, Japanese business men sit next to me. They laugh. Wish my Japanese was better. I don’t get the joke.

9pm, a group of French travelers adjusting the contents of their bags, apologizes in English for putting bags next to me. I reply in French, and we bond briefly as I explain that I speak very little French and haven’t spoken it in 10yrs. Inspired to practice more.

11:30pm, board flight. First time flying first class. Constant supply of scotch. Short flight to Phoenix. Chat with 60-something microwave sat com engineer who built a few startups. We bond. I hope he writes a book about his experience. Unexpected synchronicity. Drink more scotch.

1:50am, board flight to Tampa. Full flight. Not much rest, despite the scotch.

Saturday 6:35am, land in Tampa. Txt Marvin.

6:50am, my chariot arrives. Exhausted. Delirious smalltalk. Marvin has a wicked hangover, but weathered it to pick me up. He’s a saint. Supreme gratitude.

7:00am, finally home. Say hi to Oscar. Bed. Oscar paws at my face. He’s happy to see me. Stellar trip, but let’s make it a while before I do this again. And no more red eyes.

The Little Neutrino That Couldn’t After All

An excerpt from an IM conversation with physicist and my college roommate, Dr. Nick Cummings, PhD (@internic) about the revelation that the faster-than-light neutrino results of a few months ago were found to be false. Enjoy!

me: i had really gotten my hopes up that science wasn’t as smart as it thought

me: turns out science just didn’t plug the sensor cable in all the way…

me: which i guess confirms my theory in a way

Dr. Nick: Well, you know how it is.  When you find something miraculous you didn’t expect, the explanation is usually that you fucked up.

Dr. Nick: Occasionally it does turn out that nature fucked up.

I have long believed that only a fool believes we have mastered much that there is to be mastered in the universe. I stand with the pioneers, the risk-takers, those who dare to challenge our understanding and push the boundaries of the unknown. When I heard about the discovery of neutrinos that had travelled just a little faster than light, I was overjoyed at the possibility that we had finally stumbled upon that one situation where, as Dr. Nick puts it, nature fucked up.

I’ve studied so-called fringe science for about ten years, and I’m well familiar with myriad claims of over-unity devices, anomalous heat, nuclear transmutation, and gravitational effects, all resulting from a wide variety of experiments. Some of the experiments are done in a hobbyist’s backyard. Others are performed by post-docs in university labs with grant funding and all the resources of a national institution. The effects are usually easily explained phenomena, electromagnetic or kinematic in nature, caused by inadequate shielding or imbalanced mechanisms. On the other hand, some of the results are remarkably compelling. The images from scanning electron microscopy of the electrodes from Dr. Tadahiko Mizuno’s plasma electrolysis work showed incredible structural features. Those same electrodes revealed presence of atoms that were not present in the sample before the experiment, a phenomenon known as nuclear transmutation, not theoretically possible at the energy levels involved.

All this work leads me to believe we have a lot to learn about the universe and its rules. I had hoped that we were on the edge of learning something potentially really cool about the universe. What we ended up learning is that it’s a good idea to check your equipment and make sure everything is plugged in all the way before you announce your game-changing findings in a national forum. Unfortunately, this gives ammunition to those who aim to prove we know everything. That is, until one day when someone finds more evidence to tip the scale again. For days like that, I’m glad I have folks like Dr. Nick to help me make sense of all this cold fusion mumbo jumbo.

Taking Road Warrior to a New Level

I’m sitting in a Panera, enjoying some early afternoon coffee and working on finishing up a client’s web project. As I write this, there are two guys sitting in the middle of the front of the cafe, right by the front door, both clad in khaki and polo. They have a PC laptop open, switching back and forth between PowerPoint and Excel, discussing sales and financial trend data with a third guy, presumably also in khaki and polo, via speakerphone conference call on a Blackberry.

Yes, I said speakerphone. And conference call. On a Blackberry. In a Panera.

I’m three tables away at least, and I can clearly hear everything from the guy on the other end, so I can’t imagine how annoying this must be for all the folks sitting here trying to enjoy themselves in peace.

The best moment so far was watching one of the guys attempt to shield the conversation from the sound of the barista steaming milk for a latte. He’s juggling the phone between his ear and the ear of the other guy, waving his hand around in a futile attempt to block the penetrating screech of the steamer, all the while spewing a stream of buzz words in a mad cacophony of literally phoning it in.

I love that my office is mobile. I especially love being able to tether my laptop and/or iPad to my 3G wireless service via my phone (only downside of owning an iPhone so far is having to wait and pay extra to have this feature my pre-iPhone device offered free). These things enable me to get my ass out of the house and be around people, while still being productive. They also give me opportunities to appreciate the insensitivity and tactlessness of others through mockery and sarcasm.