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. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Work from home -no more!

Is working from home an individual's or a corporate's privilege?  It's hard to say?  On one end, an individual benefits from the freedom, flexibility, and convenience it provides, and on the other end, corporation benefits from saving on the cost of maintaining office spaces,

I recall when I started in the software business, there was no limitation on where a company could hire talent. Having a physical presence in all geographical locations was impossible and  Internet made work from anywhere possible. When interviewing, I regarded the availability of work from  home option as an option not an alternative.  The idea of working and living in the same space didn't appeal to me.  Without face to face discussion with my colleagues I felt at a disadvantage.  Yet, it was still nice to be able to work from home when there is an errand to run, a doctor's or dentist's appointment to attend, and the weather was bad.

Recently, company policies shifted to forbid working from home altogether.  Those who live within 80km of the office had one month, while those living further have 6 months to adjust their schedule to the new policy.  Everyone has to be on site 5 days a week during the core business hours.

It was hard to imagine work-life balance without the ability to work from home.  These two terms have become tightly coupled.  Now the errands, and/or appointments should be made on weekends or personal days.  And when sick or snowed in, one should just take a day.

So, I thought, my life will take a turn for the worse, I'd be behind on both work and chores at home.  In reality something else happened.  I find myself more focused at work, because I know at the end of the day, there is no more an option of taking work home.  And when at home, I am no longer split between checking on work, and getting house chores done.  This separation of the two most prominent entities of my life has been good for both.

Having said the above, I am one of the few lucky ones with just a bit over 10 hours of commute each week.  There are colleagues who spend 20+ hours per week to get to and from work.  Spending these many hours driving, or taking public transit takes a percent of the energy that should have otherwise been spent on work.  And in the long run, makes us more tired, weak, and overall less productive.  If we are encouraged to show up in the office everyday, to collaborate, innovate, and work side by side to improve productivity, we are getting the opposite effect.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Home cure for the dry cough

If you have suffered from a dry cough spell, you'd know they are not fun! This hateful condition starts with a ticklish feeling in the membrane of the throat, which one badly wants to reach and scratch, however, that's not practical so what happens instead?  The lungs contract, air is sucked out of them, and long stretch of cough starts, followed by gasping for air in between, and wiping down the tears rolling down the face.  This usually lasts a good few minutes!  After it's over, with the sense of relief and elation, one is left with tight muscles around the neck and shoulder.  But the tightness is a piece of cake compared to having to cough pointlessly repeatedly. It's not fun for the person going through this, and annoying for the people around her.

I just had to step away from writing this, because I got one of these!  As a result of this being too personal, I have been looking for a home cure for it.  I found a list, as it is the norm, on how this information are put together on the web sites, but only two resonated.  I tried both, and to my delight, they are both effective.

They are:
1. Honey:
 A spoon full of honey, goes straight there, and it feels like it coats the membrane.  After a few minutes the area feels soothed and relaxed.

2. Saline
Gargling with salt water solution for a few minutes, and then rinsing with regular water keeps the area clean, as well as helps with the discomfort.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Buying the right laptop 2016

There!  It's September and marketing folks prefix or append "back to school" to products in order to make their purchase necessary at this time of the year.  One product that is very relevant these days is a Laptop. 

I have a Dell INSPIRON 15. It takes up a large space. Carrying it is similar to weight lifting. Once powered on, irrelevant processes run, advertising Dell software and services. Despite a 64bit AMD processor it doesn't scale. And it has a loud fan.
I am thinking of retiring the old dude!

"It's all about the specs!"  The Best buy representative said. "When shopping for a new laptop it is best to compare specs of the laptops in one's price range."

I have a $1000 budget. My ideal spec would be:
> Intel processor, preferably i5 or i7,
> No less than 8GB of RAM,
> Less than 1.5kg
> No less than 8 hours of battery life
> A quiet keyboard
> Doesn't heat
> Equipped with USB, (preferably 3.1), HDMI, and Ethernet ports
> Not bloated with pre-installed useless software

ASUS X540L comes with two Intel i7 cores, 8GB of RAM, less than 2kg, USB 3.0 and is $749.99 CAD on Best Buy's "back to school" sale.

I bought and trialed run it yesterday, and I am returning it today.
On this computer there is no visual aide to indicate Caps Lock is on! Typing is a painful task of many backspace/erase keystrokes, e.g. the page up/down keys are not co-located with the arrows.  It comes pre-installed with crapware.
The only thing this laptop has going for it, is its sharp display. Pity, I cannot keep the NVIDIA graphic card!

I will trial run a Lenovo next!  Meanwhile, my old dude is staying.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Midwife of Venice, Roberta Rich

Roberta Rich says the story came to her on a trip to Venice, when visiting the Jewish ghettos she imagined life of the Jewish families arriving from Northern Europe, Spain and Portugal, and settling in these neighborhoods in the 16th century.   Hannah Levi, her protagonist, lives in the ghetto.  She is a mid-wife, married, barren, and known to deliver babies by witch craft. The witch craft refers to her birthing spoons, she invented by hinging two spoons in the center, and practiced delivery with them, by pulling an onion out of a chicken belly.  Her reputation has spread to the Christian neighborhood. 
The desperate Conte Padovani needs a heir to stay in charge of his estate, and to keep it safe from being blown by his younger brothers.  His pregnant wife has been in labor for two straight days, has lost a lot of blood, but there is no sign of the baby yet.  The Conte comes to Hanna hoping that she agrees to help deliver his baby despite it being against law for Jew to deliver a Christian baby.  What will Hannah do?  Hanna has a lot at the stake.  She has to consider the people living in the ghetto.  If she can't deliver the baby or if something happens to the baby or the mother, she along with the rest of her people will suffer from the consequence of breaking the law.  At the same time, and only recently her husband's on board a ship was attacked and captured by the Knights of Malta.  He is now in their custody and sold to one of merchants of the island as a slave.  She needs money to buy Issac's freedom.  

This book is an easy, entertaining read. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

Stories like Satrapi's are common and have been told before.  Like Satrapi many were old enough to remember but young enough to really make sense of the events of 1979 Iranian Revolution.  And a few have written about it, Daila Sofer. It seems to me that there is demand to hear about the events of those years; books written on the topic are popular in print and yield lucrative business for film adaptations.  So, more of the same keeps popping.  The question that has come to my mind more than once is had the authors of these books not been part of this historical event, would they be writers today?
Perspolis is yet another one of these stories that belongs to the same "genre".  It tells a story of a girl, the author, who lived the events during and after the revolution.  Her story, like the rest, is dominated by her experiences of those years which is shaped by her family's social status.
What I am trying to say here is, this book doesn't offer anything new, if you have read September's of Shiraz, for example.
The only unique thing is it is illustrated. The illustration however make the story and the characters in it more colorful.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Nanjing Requiem, Ha Jin

The book chronicles another dark moment in history of humanity. In this one: Japanese soldiers attack and take control of Nanjing, the capital of China during 1937-38. Their actions towards every living being in the city is beast like. They slaughter, rape, torture anyone almost willingly, without remorse, with no conscious. And so it doesn't come as a surprise when a group of missionaries from around the world are there to contrast the evil with goodness and humanity; it's the Yang to the Yin. In the center is Ms. Minnie Vautrin, whose life is devoted to the Women's College, Jinling, she helped co-found. She is there to protect and be the voice of people who have been abandoned by their government. Her story of fighting the fight that is not hers inspires!
The book is classified as a novel. The fictional story is largely based on research of Ms. Vautrin's memoirs. The writing is to the point, says it as it is. The story touches on the emotions, the anger, and the sadness only briefly. Nanjing Diaries is a better suited title for this book.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Huawei Y6

Huawei is an Android phone; specs are here.

I use Android base phones only.  And I have had the opportunity to have many, because I leave them behind and despite having my contact information appear on the lock screen, so far I have never got back any of my phones that I left behind.  Thanks to Android's Device Manager feature, I quickly do a remote erase.  As a result my data has not been compromised so far.

Last time I lost my phone, I decided to buy cheap.  Huawei had the lowest price tag, $150 CAD.  The specs, I have included a link to above, and the customer reviews were OK.  Here is what I (dis)like about this phone.

I dislike the preinstalled apps: on the phone Y6's Calendar, Messenger, Fitness, and Browser.  These use too small of a font with  white back ground and blue borders, not an eye appealing design. The Browser opens with an error, "can't log in", but if you are stubborn like me and you type a URL anyways, it redirects you to the site!  The Calendar is not integrated with MAP so the locations of events appear as text only, and won't open up in any map or GPS like device.  The Messaging stacks up the conversation threads.  Although new messages appear in Messaging APP, after I installed and made Google Hangout  default APP to receive send SMS messages, but the status of message, read/unread, is out of sync.

There are two buttons to adjust the volume.  These are situated next to the power on|off button on the side of the phone.  Unfortunately, these only work when the phone screen is unlocked.  It's poor UI design to require entering the password in order to perform a function, adjusting the volume, that is not a security threat.

The Dialer gives the false impression that you can add new contact during the call.  However, the "Contacts" on the Dialer just takes you to the step by step process of adding information for all fields; note I used this functionality during the call, once done, I had no idea how to close the contact screen, and resorted to the phone "Back" button to go back to the Dialer.

Huawei  Y6  Phone Manager scans phone to provide option to optimize Application and Security optimization.   I tried both automatic and manual optimization neither one provided a clear indication on how it benefits. While NEXUS phone tries to put the phone user in control of customizing for Power and Security, Huawei Y6 takes control over the phone.  Huawei developers think that by nature of calling an APP smart, they can safely assume the APP knows better than the phone owner what's best!!

The traffic manager is useless to me.  My old phone gave me the option of setting and tracking my data usage during the billing period.  This phone only provides a line graph of use at discreet point in time.  My old phone also had the capability of setting quota, and would give a warning when the usage was close to the quota.  Huawei's traffic manager is useless to me!

These preinstalled APPS: Mirror, FM Radio, Flash Light, and lock screen, maybe useful and interesting to use one day.

The battery life ranges between 8 - 10 hours for me, so far.  I try to close all APPs after use.

With 1.1 GHZ CPU, the performance of opening some APPs, e.g. Lumosity, Google Sheets and or Docs, is really slow.

To get the phone screen to react, it requires a knock, as opposed to gentle tap.

Overall, my experience with this phone, has not been the greatest.  It's true you get what you pay for.

The snip from an article related to Huawei's new venture to have its own "Android Alternative" agrees with my observation of slow performance of the existing phones.

Like most smartphone manufacturers, Huawei has designed its own skin, or customized Android look. But that skin is often referred to as an iOS ripoff, and its UI layer is heavy with background processes, which slows the phones' performance.

The Marriage of the Opposites, Alice Hoffman

Set in the island of St. Thomas occupied by Danes, the story of Camille Pissarro, the French-Danish, impressionist of 19th century is overshadowed by perhaps too detailed story of his mother Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro.

The only daughter of a well respected, and well off merchant of the Island, Rachel learns from her father reading, writing and math; something that not very many Jewish girls are encouraged to do. Despite the fact, that she could never inherit, she learns to read the ledgers. Her youth is spent reading the books in her father's library and dreaming of living in Paris. As she reaches the marriage age, she finds it very difficult to fall in love. In fact, she doesn't believe in love. Her marriage to an older, widowed merchant, arranged by her father doesn't come as a surprise. Rachel realizes her softer side as the second Mrs. Issac's Petit. She has had a bitter relationship with her mother, so she is surprised to find an adoration for the three children of Mr. Petit.  Rachel's story is one of defiance of customs and traditions. The least of her worries is what others think of her.

Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro is the third of four children Rachel had with her second husband Fredrick, the nephew of his first husband who came to St. Thomas to take over his uncle's business.
Jacobo took three days to be born and cried all the time. He was his mother's favorite child, but Rachel never showed affection to the boy. He went to the all black school, because they were out cast from the Jewish community. (The side story of Rachel's love for and marriage to Fredrick, her first husband's nephew, as well as their effort to legalizing their marriage and registering their children in the book of names --is an interesting side story). Jacobo doesn't excel in his education, but shows interest in drawing. To parents who want him to work in the family business, this comes as a big disappointment, so they send him to a boarding school in Paris to acquire more practical knowledge and skills!

Although the author glosses over the "artist" creating his "art", I was fascinated by Pissaro's use of lively colors as described in the book. This quote from the Wiki captures how I felt when I read about him in this book.
"The brightness of his palette envelops objects in atmosphere ... He paints the smell of the earth."[9]:35

The title of the book is very confusing, as if the author changed her story but forgot to change the title!

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Septembers of Shiraz, Dalia Sofer

 Set in Tehran after the Pahlavi's were toppled by the people's revolution, we are introduced to Issac Amin. He is a non-practicing Jewish jeweler. He comes from humble beginnings; his hard work and passion for jem had brought him riches and fame. On a non-descriptive day he is arrested by the revolutionary guard, and taken to jail in blind folds. In the pages that follow we are told the reactions, and stories of those who are impacted by Isaac's arrest. His wife who tries her best to hold the fort, keep matters in order and her daughter safe, but finds herself ill prepared for both and leans on the housekeeper on many occasions. His daughter who given her young age and due to her mother's shortcomings trys to take matters of rescuing her father and many others in her own hand by stealing documents from her friend's house, whose father works for the revolutionary guard. His housekeeper, and her son; who have been treated and paid fairly over the years, but still question and despise the large income gap between themselves and the Amin family. Isaac's parents, brother and sister who are more concerned with their affairs than Isaac's disappearance. And Issac's son who is studying to become an architect in New York, and seems only concerned about his change in status from a rich to a poor boy who now has to earn his living and his place in society. All this is happening while Issac is given the opportunity to think his life through and put it in perspective in jail. His cell mates and people he comes in contact with during the daily recess are nothing like him. They are communists, or Islamic socialists who were amongst the masses shouting "Down with Shah" not too long ago, but since their ideology differs from the winners are put in jail and made scared of making any claim to the government.
I neither liked the story nor the writing. The story lacked substance. It was washed down to appeal and end quickly. The characters were sloppy. The only thing I sort of liked was the conversations, and events of the jail. The interrogation sessions were descriptive enough to make my hair stand on end. The conversations were interesting because we had pro- & anti- Shah in the same place trying to make sense of it all, and to have them see eye to eye on some matters was a job well done.
The writing was simple, and switched to Farsi in parts of dialogues; this switch made the culture of the characters ambiguous.

Friday, February 19, 2016

How do you socialize?

Around December time frame, my friend and I decided to put our heads, and hearts together to write down all the obstacles to socializing.  We felt since our move to Toronto, many years ago, we still lacked the close, tight knit circle we could call upon to get together, gossip, have fun,  or ask for guidance, or help.  We were wondering why?  Is there something in the climate, literally?  Toronto is too cold.

Since then, I have been thinking and paying attention to hit or miss opportunities to socialize.  Here is my observation so far.

Socialize means different to different people

In my mother tongue we have many different words that describes the action of people getting together not to do business, although it is always a welcome outcome.  Meeting with people is a very important part of my culture, it happens all days of the week, and starts with a phone call, which almost always ends with a date for a meeting, the same day or in a few days.  It's simple, and effortless to get together.  The host then may decide to extend the invitation to other like minded connections, friends, and or family.  Depending on the time and day, these people may or may not show, but it is almost certain that most will show and the event is a go.  No one turns down an invite without a good reason. 

Preparing for the get together itself is extensive.  There's always a host and guest relationship, even if the get together is in a public place.  Most people prefer to have people over  their home, however.  The host always goes beyond the means to put on the best dressed table in front of the guests.  The word "show off" is used often in the after-party conversations; as the party is so extensive that resembles a show of some sort! The guests are there to be entertained and have a good time.  Everyone plays host at some point in time; some do this in a round robin fashion.

Going or throwing a party is a necessity of life in my home town.  Therefore folks prioritize socializing ahead of every other task.

There is a consistency, and in being consistent you get to know the people over time: their name, the name of members of their family, where they are from, what they do, their marital status, their hobbies, their sense of style, and their sense of humor.  The connection is established gradually.

This is not the case in Toronto!  It seems parties thrown by individuals, at least the ones that I have directly and indirectly been part of, is rare.  The more common one is when an organization steps in, and organizes one, every "guest" contributes the fee, and the organization arranges the logistics, entertainment, and food based on the theme.  I have been to a few of these, and felt like I am in one of those lottery ball machines, where people attract or repel after a few minutes of conversation about random topics.  If you are left with one person, there is either an awkward silence, or a series of one way questions on: nationality, marital status, and job, sometimes education.  Conversations are occasionally shallow.  Everyone is aware of all the social biases, there are so many of them; and avoids starting or steering the conversation in that direction.  In this kind of settings I consider myself lucky, if I see the same face twice at the same or follow on parties.

People have busy schedules
I said it is effortless to set a date for a social get together in my home town.  Well, this is not the case in Toronto!  It seems like people need an extra 7 days in a week and an extra 24 hours in a day, to be able to contain their work, life, and social schedule.  It's painful to find a date that works.  It goes back and forth, with email, text, phone call, for weeks, if not months to find a date and time to get together for an hour over coffee in a coffee shop!  I almost feel people are sabotaging themselves and denying themselves of all the fun to be had.

Socializing is not just a past time
It's a fun past time. If you socialize with like minded people you sure experience its impact on your mood.  It reduces stress, because either it distracts or provides a medium to vent.  It creates opportunities to help and be of help at times of need.  I know that I can never have enough friends!

These are my observations so far.  I will come back to it as I gain more insight into the topic using my and those who'd be willing to share experiences with me.

Monday, February 01, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a specimen for culture from a cervical tumor that belonged to Henrietta Lacks, a then 31-year-old African-American woman, without informing her that he was doing so, or asking her consent, as is now required. While Henrietta died pretty quickly after her diagnosis, her cells stayed alive and continued duplicating, hence they were dubbed immortal. Pretty soon, the cells were commercialized, produced, packaged and shipped to where there was demand. Science had found a reliable supply of human cells that it could use to test, and experiment with. Many of such experiments were conducted on Henrietta's cells, the most significant one: the test to prove the polio vaccine is effective. Although contaminated, being cancerous, they became the center of many more scientific advances. Later on, the cells tested positive for two strains of Human Papilloma Virus, which confirmed the results of Professor Harald zur Hausen research connecting HPV to cervical cancer.
The Lacks family found out about Henrietta's cells, in a casual conversation between one of Henrietta's daughter in laws, who is a patient aid at Baltimore hospital, and her neighbor who is a cancer research scientist. With very limited education, it was very hard for the family to grasp the true meaning of their mother's cells being living.
The book tries to bring these two stories together, and I think while there is good effort made, but the result is not very satisfactory.
While I enjoyed reading about HeLa; learning what they are, their significance to science as well as medical ethics. I felt confused when the author switched to talking about the Lacks'. She kept all the details of her finding them, connecting with them, and befriending in the book. Which made these chapters verbose. The family's hardships after Henrietta's death due to HeLa are truly sad! It deserves to be narrated pure and simple, and not to be murked by the author's pursuit of it.