Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: The Orphan's Master Son, by Adam Johnson

Except for a few in depth, personal observations that caught my attention, the rest of the story fell flat for me. Sure the story of, the orphan's master, Pak Jun Do; his rise, and fall through the political ranks of North Korean government, and his strength of character was quite something. Even if he was not an "orphan"; if there was a man and a woman who claimed him as their son, he would still be the "the property of", as this was "the ultimate perversion of the communist dream."

 There are two parts to this book.

In Part I, Pak Jun Do's life unfolds; from his days in the orphanage, his kidnapping stint with officer So, and then his days on the Junmo ship to finally being named the "hero of the state" he depicts strength of character, and integrity.

 In Part II the book evolves into a few intertwined timelines; all continuation of Jun Do's story but told by different sources, with slight but noticeable differences. Part II is long-winded. The story of the autobiographers of Division 42, working along side the North Korea's "Pubyok", is separate hinged to the main story with story of Jun Do; this on its own, however, tells of the lives of the "regular" citizens shaped by the state controlled propaganda machine, which counts their blessings and attributes these to the benevolence of the "Dear Leader", Kim Jong-il, daily.

 The most interesting part of the book is the contrast between the reality and reality of the government propaganda; which makes the distinct point that: "In North Korea you were not born, you were made." Given the book's disclaimer of "incidents and dialogue, ..." being "products of the author's imagination", the recount is nothing but a story, and should not shape the readers' perception of life in North Korea. Life in North Korea still remains a mystery.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Jon Montgomery, Canada Amazing Race Host, advice is ...

Jon Montgomery is the gold medal winner of skeleton race, 2010 Winter Olympics, as well as host of Amazing Race Canada show.  His advice on parenthood published as part of his interview with ParentsCanada is spot on.  I quote here for easy, and frequent access:


I feel sorry for the kids who won’t have another chance to learn some of these valuable life lessons while they are young; but, they’ll get their education one way or another. The consequences for being lazy, not working well with others, having poor sportsmanship, and never learning the value in losing will be astronomically higher if they learn these things later in life – because the laws that govern this world do not change simply because we feel children are too young to learn them.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

If we could improve the volunteer experience with the Engineer-in-Residence program --a personal recount

A successful program that has been running for years, Engineer In Residence, EIR, program was established to help "bridge the gap" that often exists between "real world and classroom theory".
The program places P.Eng and EITs in elementary and high schools across the province of Ontario. The volunteer EIR "brings real-life dimension to the curriculum, using hands on projects. presentations and other activities."

As a licensed engineer, when I received the "Call for Volunteers" email from PEO in April of 2016, the email text was similar to what I quoted, above, from the "About" page of Engineer-in-Residence program web site, I clicked on the embedded link and applied.

Although there's a lot of positive that goes with volunteering in general, and this volunteer program specifically (based on past participant anecdotes published on the web), I started with a low expectation.  I anticipated slow response to emails, lack of well defined process, and to summarize a program that relies on volunteers to be self-starters with limited, or no assistance.  Even with this assumption, I found myself at times confused, at best, and frustrated, at worst, with the way this program was run and issues were handled.  Below, I state three events that made me feel this way.  Since I want to be as objective as I can in my recount, in each scenario I state my expectation first and then describe my experience.

Notification of change:
My expectation:
A coordinator plays a key role, someone whose job's definition is to ensure an effective interface between the program participants and the program.  One would expect this role to be always filled, and in the event of a change, it would be broadcast to those who are sitting patiently on the other end of the communication waiting for the transition out of the old, and transition in of the new to complete.
My Experience:
After a month of working with a program coordinator, and close to a month of no communication, a broadcast email arrived from a new email.   The email didn't  say anything whether there has been a permanent change over, or whether this new person is stepping in for a bit.  I had a conversation thread going with the then coordinator, trying to set up a date to get the Police Check process started.  After a month long wait, the broadcast email from the new person, and its call-to-action was all that I received. It was confusing, but not something that breaks the camel's back.

Appointments and last minute change of plans:
My Expectation:
When one sets a meeting date a month in advance, the most probable outcome one expects is the meeting happens as planned.  But, there's a chance that something happens that inhibits one party to keep her/his promise.  So, the logical course of action is to reach out to the other person, and ensure the appointment is canceled and/or rescheduled.
My Experience:
I arrived in the office, after an hour long commute, only to find out the person I am meeting with is not there.  I checked the email to see if I had the day and/or time right, there I found a fresh email from the person I was meeting, at 10:30 am the same day saying, " something has come up and I am no longer available today."  I felt very frustrated. The email ended with "Sorry for the late notice,"  This didn't make me feel any better.  However, I thought, these are administrative mishaps, and qualify as minor impediments to a year long,  great experience of interacting with young, curious minds who are ready to be interested and engaged in engineering experiments.

Provide support when things are not going as planned:
My expectation:
When things are not going the way they are supposed to, I expect the experts to guide and/or course correct, the very least touch base with both the teacher and the volunteer.  Especially, if they are kept in the loop, by way of being cc'd on the email, and asked directly.
My Experience:
There was a day long training, in which participation for EIRs and Teachers were voluntary.  During this full day session however,  the participants were given an introduction to the program and tutorial on the format of it.  I learned at this session that Teachers and EIRs meet in the start of the school year, and collaborate on putting together the content to be presented to the class, they'd also come up with a mutual convenient schedule for the EIR to meet with the class.  When the feedback request email arrived end of November, I still had not had a face to face with the Teacher and not been to a classroom.  I had a series of missed call appointments, and infrequent email replies from the teacher to show for, with no concrete plan for future.  I could relate to the teacher having a busy start of the year.  But, I think by November we should have had the very least one face to face.  I wrote the EIR support team, consulted them on how I should proceed.  I received reply from one of the EIR Support Team members saying, keep emailing until you get through.  And that's the level of support I received in my first experience with the EIR program.  I was honestly thinking of giving up half way through.  But, then I thought where would that leave the kids.  In the spirit of making a difference, I kept at it.

Conclusion:
We are counting down to the end of 2016-2017 school year.  I have not met the kids at the school I was assigned to even once.  But, I have met with the two teachers working together on this, twice, and have exchanged many emails with them.  These teachers are running numerous science projects for their kids, something I commend.  I don't know if much thought was given on how does running an EIR program for a full academic year fits the existing schedule. I think it was perceived as doable to accommodate alongside other running projects.  In any case, although I was not able to launch the EIR program as explained in the one day training, I was able to offer my services as a practicing Software Developer to one of the science projects these two teachers were running for their kids.  I developed for them four Salmon Ecosystem software projects/games to complement, and reinforce the learning of the science project the teachers are running for the kids this year.  The games simulate good, and bad ecosystems and follow their impact on salmons' survival. Although the games are written and ready to be deployed, the teachers have not had a chance to run through them with the kids.  There has been a lot of gaps and delays in our email communication. These delays has hindered the project progress.

This is my personal experience with the way Engineer-in-Residence program was run this year.   I am not returning to the program next year.  I think the program markets itself very well, but it lacks the characteristic of a well-run, organized program.
I am sharing this in an open forum, because I hope coordinators and participants of Engineer-in-Residence program and other similar programs can share their experience here when they come across it. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Zipcar's cancellation policy --occasional driving membership plan

I have been a Zipcar member since December of 2010.  Given I needed access to car, on average, once a month; I opted for Occasional Driving Membership plan.  In this schema, I paid a one time admin fee, and an annual fee.  Under this plan, I had the flexibility to rent as needed.

It worked well.

Life circumstances change, however. For us buying a hybrid car has made the convenience of being a member of car sharing program redundant.

I searched the Zipcar web site for membership cancellation information.  This is not mentioned under the "help".  But, type "cancellation" in the "Ask a question box", and you get

We're sorry to see you go!  To cancel your membership, please give us a call below.
Call 1-866-4ZIPCAR


I called today, and here is the scoop.  Two things should be in place for a full membership refund to occur:
  a.  No reservation should have been made, and used in the current membership year
  b.  Cancellation should occur less than 30 days after the membership renewal  date

So, I still enjoy carrying my Zipcar membership around, at least for a few more months!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

The story is about a big family. We start reading about the Whitshanks in the present time, and then reading their parents', and finally their grand parents' stories. Yet with all the background information, which I should say the author has done a pretty good job of keeping concise, by the end of the book, the reason for the characters' behaviors and actions is somewhat left to personal interpretation.
Of all the characters in the book, I found Denny's, the son of Red Whitshanks, the most interesting. The book starts and ends with him, so I thought of him as the book's protagonist. His rebellious streak, despite all the attention he received from almost every member of his family, especially his mother, perplexed me. And it looked like he was the most angry with his mother. I kept thinking why? None of the events, not even, his mother lying to him to get him see a counselor justified his anger towards her. We see youth that turn out bad, despite their parents hard work to provide, educate, and guide. So, I guess I wanted to see the author's point of view of why Denny turned out to be so angry in spite of all he had going for him.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Make it an Easy-clean bathroom

I have often appreciated the bare minimum condo developers provide in each room of the condo, leaving them to owners to customize.  It has become a tradition, and almost a hobby to get busy with a small size renovation project around this time each year.

This year, inspired by this houzz article, I decided to make some changes to the bathroom.

I was spending time scrubbing the grout, and trying to get the green spots that appeared recently on bathtub tiles.  I didn't think I could get the green off the tiles completely.  It made sense to remove and replace the tub surround tiles.  The green spots may have been due to the fact that the fan was not working properly, so I added cleaning the fan to the list.

The existing porcelain floor tiles, 12x12, gray, covered roughly 31sq/feet area, which meant a large area to clean grout. I decided to go with a larger tile, and darker color, but stick with porcelain, because they are less porous, harder, and less prone to stain.

For the longest time, I had searched online or popped in home decor and furnishing stores looking for a practical way to organize the toiletries, however nothing appealed. The most common, the shower caddies, all took up extra space, and if not cleaned regularly would best case look dirty, and worst case rust.  I was replacing the bathtub tile surround, so I could ask for a niche that is deep and wide enough to hold all items now sitting in the four corners of the bathtub.  Each week, cleaning under each item was time consuming. With the niche, I only had to swipe clean one surface.

The tub and vanity are in good shape, and easy to clean, so I left those out of the project plan.  But, I decide to get a new, chrome finish shower set.  I had brushed nickle spout, and control which despite scrubbing them clean with lemon juice the looked darkened, and old.

My wish-list was complete, so all I needed now was a good contractor to execute the project on time and within my budget.

I had had good working experience with Home Depot installers.  I used them for two previous flooring projects.  They had a project expert at the store.  He was so helpful, and knowledgeable.  I only had to tell him what I have in mind, and he would recommend the material.

I had second thoughts on going with Home Depot when I found out Home Depot has replaced the residence expert with a project center.   But being able to use Home Depot credit services and pay the cost of the project over 12 months period, interest free, lured me back in.

Not having the residence expert, I took to the internet, read through client feedback posted on each item on Home Depot web site, to make my selection.  Not having anyone to verify if the choices I've made fit their necessary purpose, I completed and paid for the order.  The total cost of material and labor came to $3700, a bit higher than I expected, but I was quite excited about my choices, and anxious to see the end result that I forgave myself for going over the budget.

I chose
  white mosaic mesh for the bathtub surround,
  porcelain glazed, matt finish 24x24 in beige for the floor
  and two piece delta control and hand shower in chrome finish, and a separate spout in chrome finish
   
The work started on the Monday and finished on Thursday, on time, as promised four days.  However, unlike past projects, this one faced a couple of bumps along the way.

Day 1: the demo took half a day, when the work was done, there was a layer of dust every where and there was a rather large chip on the engineered hardwood floor.  The demo guys didn't have floor and furniture protection sheets, and although I had called ahead of the project start day to inquire what I need to prepare the home, I was not made aware to get my own.

Day 2: building the niche, installing the waterproof drywall, and tiles, however when it was time to install the tiles I was made aware of the possibility of some of the meshes, especially in the corners, not being completely aligned with one another.  Bottom line, what I picked was not meant for large surface, such as tub surround.  There was no choice but to take the tiles back to the store and get new ones, subway tiles as recommended by the installer, this perceived inconvenience shed $500 off the project cost :)

Day 3: install the faucet, control and head shower, install the floor tiles except for the rough-in of a hand shower and control won't work if there is a spout.  So, the only way to make progress in project is to use my old shower head and control, but apparently the demo guys have got rid of the old set.  So, the installers promise to buy a set.  What seemed as a set back, saved another $300 off the project cost :)

Day 4: grout, baseboards, towel bar, shower curtain bar, a full contractor came to finish up
I went with the gray non-sanded grout.  This color, and type grout worked well with both the floor and the bathroom tiles.  I used the floor tile for baseboard.  The guys also helped with installing a towel bar, and shower curtain rod.

The end result:

Lessons learned: Talk to an expert when picking material, ensure and don't leave it to the installer to bring the proper protection for your floor and furniture.



Saturday, October 29, 2016

Visiting London / three nights / 2016

Best thing we ever did was to order Oyster card online, which arrived before our departure.  With 15GBP credit on the card, it made our transfer from Heathrow to our hotel cheap, and effortless.   During our time in London, we tapped the card upon entering and exiting the train station, depending on distance traveled, the fare was deducted.  We only topped up a couple of times during our stay. To get to the airport, we bought tickets on Gatwick express, 19.9 GBP. The Gatwick express leaves Victoria train station every 15 minutes, and travels to Gatwick non-stop.

On arrival to our hotel we were surprised to find out that the Holiday Inn London - Kensington Forum charges 30.75GBP for early check-in.  The fee entitled us to eat-in at the all-you-can-eat-buffet breakfast.  The hotel was in great location: close to the Metro's Gloucester station, in a not too crowded, clean, upscale neighborhood,  nice restaurants, and cafes close by, and branches of two major supermarket chain, Tesco and Waitrose, within walking distance.  The average nightly fee was C$211/night.  From our hotel room we could see "The Eye".

The  Eye was the first place we went to.  We spent an hour in line to get the ticket, we spent almost half of hour sight seeing money to buy the express tickets, then waited another hour to get on the famous Ferris wheel.  The wheel took us on a 30 minutes spin above London, where we snapped a few out of focus pictures, right.  When it was all over, we wondered if it was worth it, and the answer was NO!

But going on the Hop on Off tour which included a cruise of Thames river from the Tower of London to London Eye was well worth it.  We cruised around the city passing important buildings, churches, and colleges while listening to the rich history of them: Churchill Arms and the very ordinary looking palace of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kensington, the St. Pauls Cathedral and Westminister Abbey, Peter Pan and Lady Diane Memorial fountain in Hyde Park, the Paddington neighborhood, and the station where trains take travelers to Paris in under 2 hours, the London School of Economics, Royal Albert Hall, the house where Beatles lived, the house where the Prime Minister lives, Number 10 Downing street, The Houses of Parliament, Piccadilly and Trafalgar Squares, and I am sure I am forgetting a whole bunch.

And of course, you can't be visiting a new city and not try their cuisine.  This was not an easy task, as with the globalization and immigration there was fusion every where we looked.  On my list there were a place that boasted to serve the best English breakfast, another that was renowned for its tea, and one that was down to earth but served very delicious fish and chips, all these had addresses in East End London.  I was surprised to find out that the neighborhood is not suited for non-Londoners, so we skipped them, and ended up eating in not so very exciting places, like Prezzo, Spaghetti House, Pret A Manger, Burger King, and Paul.

Similar to food, finding shopping authentic to London was difficult.  Walking down Oxford Street we were surprised by how every where you go you see the big brand names, and how absent the local design is from major shopping streets.  But, we had to see the Selfridges and so we went, and although in the series the restaurants are all on the main floor,  we were told there is a not too expensive restaurant on the roof top.  We had lunch there, Fish and Chips --mediocre.

Getting out of London provides the opportunity to see the roads, and high ways, and experience the culture of transportation, an essential element of growth and prosperity.  And internet makes it possible for visitors to book tickets in advance to save time.  We bought our tickets to Bath on National Express web site, and found Victoria Bus Station, and although there is a myriad of bus companies that operate between Victoria Bus Station and Bath's, we spot the National Express bus.  It's a long trip, better suited for overnight stay, but it can be done in one day.  Bath is on UNESCO's list of heritage cities, so it's expected to feel ancient, the Roman Bath and the Bath Spa are the two main attractions of this city.  It's said that the mineral water pools of Bath have healing powers.

We did manage to go to one museum during our stay.  There was no fee to get in but the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit , which was the main motivation for our trip, had a nominal fee of 10 GBP.  This was to introduce a different side of Leonardo Da Vinci, not the painter of the famous Mona Lisa Smile, but the innovator of many equipment and machines.

I think visiting London and surroundings could be educational and fun!

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

I am on such emotional high right now, and it has been a couple of days since I flipped the last page of The Goldfinch. I can't stop thinking about the plot, the characters, the language, the prose, and the places mentioned in this book. And that's only scratching the surface. Theodore Decker's story has touched my soul. I was not just reading his story, I was living it. 

It is not just the story that is extraordinary. Although to come up with such a plot, placing a 13 year old ALONE in the world, whose view of the world is so dark, and rightly so; and then inviting colorful, vastly different from one another: bourgeois, artists, drug and art mafias, alcoholics, and junkies in and out of his life, and engineering events in very well chosen cities is nothing but genius. But also the words used to describe the events, places and characters; the vocabulary the characters choose is nothing short of amazing. 

I think aspiring writers should read this book at least once.