All posts by dstsai

Why do we choke?

I have been the designated tutor of my 5-year-old daughter’s piano lessons at home (my wife does the driving to/from the piano teacher). One thing I have noticed is that there would be times when she really aced one part of the song consistently then afterward she would choke or fumble hopelessly on that particular part some days later. This is not unusual for myself, and most people or even athletes (remember the disappointment we felt when we saw the ice skaters fell miserably on a simple routine?). We sometimes make mistakes where we or others least expected that we would make. Why is that? I’ll defer the scientific explanation to the brain expert. My theory is that we often choke where we haven’t experienced failures yet or we haven’t figured out how to fail. And failures are our enforcement for continuous success.

Drawing a similarity to why a hardware system would sometimes fail where it’s least expected to fail – like I2C (the “slow” system management bus) that does the housekeeping within the system, or simple power sequencing circuits involving power supplies. And the simple answer is often that we haven’t figured out how to make it fail or test to fail – whether intentionally or unintentionally.

As part of my job at Sun Microsystems – System Validation or hardware quality assurance of sorts, we need to harden/toughen our hardware and correct/catch all of the hardware bugs before we release our hardware to our customers. After the hardware goes out to the field (customers), any hardware bug could have serious financial and logistic consequences for Sun, not to mention having to answer to our Quality Office 🙂 Financial consequence entails many order of magnitude to fix the problems using field engineers or recalling the products altogether. Logistic consequences sometimes mean living with the minor hardware bugs and resulted software legacy issues when an improved hardware is phased in. It’s all risk and disaster management. The complexity can get really nasty.

So how do we prevent “choking” at all? For the computer hardware, we would need to stress each of the circuits, even the most unlikely candidates, to failure if possible. The means looking at the boundary conditions of the design and coming up with creative ways to “break” the design and check if we have sufficient design margin to weather the constant shocks of component variations, manufacturing process variations, operation condition variations and etc, during the entire product life at the customers’ site. This is whole new topic for a separate blog at a different time.

For my 5-year old daughter’s piano lessons, it means more practices and further drill down to where she shows sign of “breaking” or carelessness. Sometimes, I would make her play a certain segment of the piece in the middle to break up the routine a bit and see how she reacts to it. It’s all about making her fail before the “big” day – the May 20, 2007 recital. It’s so good to practice your theories on your children 🙂

How to manage your email inbox effectively

These days, most people are bombarded with enormous amount of emails. Handling all these emails has turned the email from a productivity tool into an productivity reducer. Everyone seems to have his/her way of handling the influx of emails. Some boast very low inbox count but has a hard time finding any emails. Some would let their inbox turn into a reservoir of emails without an easy way to find any email. I, as a manager, has to oversee over 5~10 active projects at a time and I often have to plow through 300+ emails a day on average and I still have no trouble finding emails as far back as 7 years ago. I don’t claim to be an expert in email but I would like to share my ways of managing my emails:

1. Create a huge trash folder. Delete irrelevant emails relentlessly without filing. Filing someday-maybe-important emails are simply too time consuming. Copy your trash file every quarter or month to another named file and then purge the Trash file. Purging the Trash file would make the email deletion faster. These saved Trash files became your “circular” file. You may want to keep 3~6 months of trash file around in case you don’t want to miss anything important and would make your email deletion process more decisive and thorough.
2. File or delete as you read each email – read it and rid it. Try not to skim because you’ll mostly likely forget to read it again and miss an important email (like the ones from your boss).
3. If an email needs to be replied, click “reply” and save the email right away and then take your time to compose the email throughout the work day as needed. This ends up to be your to-reply list. Saving the email right away is an insurance against the frequent events of the email client crashes.
4. Use multi-level subfolders to file relevant emails for future reference. Try to keep within 3 levels, otherwise it gets very hard to find the folder and very troublesome to expand and contract folders.
5. Have a pen or pencil ready to jot down important to-do things to work on as you read the emails.
6. Set a moving window of emails you want to keep in your inbox. This is the same as setting a cutoff date of the oldest emails you want to keep and on a weekly or biweekly basis to purge/file emails to maintain the same window. For example, if you set a window of 3 months and today is May 1st, you should try to delete/file the emails up to February 1st. Then in two weeks on May 14th, you should try to delete/file the emails up to February 14th and so on. This way you would keep the inbox reasonable fresh. Besides, it gets easier to delete old email as they become less relevant.
7. Turn on the thread feature of the mail readers then file/delete emails of the entire thread – much faster.
8. Proactively get out of aliases that you’re no longer interested. Or set a spam filter to filter these emails out.

Please feel free to comment or add your tips.

Fixing Leaky Shower – my third try!

My tenant called about the water leaking into her kitchen. This is the 3rd time I have attempted to fix it – not much to be brag about. The first time, a plumber (introduced by the tenant) figured it’s a leaky shower door. So he silicone-sealed the the shower door and called it done. The second time, the handy man figured it must be the leaky drainage. Se he silicone-sealed the the drainage pipe area and recommended that shower pan be replaced. Each incremental fix seemed to have done some good. At least it kept the tenant quiet for a month or so. Then yesterday the tenant called and complained that it’s leaking again. This time it’s really “pouring.” So I figured I will probably need to spend some money to replace the shower altogether. This morning, I went to Lowe’s and found the choices of 32″x32″ shower pan/kit to be quite limited. The integrated wall/pan kit is economical (~$300) but it’s too wide and would not fit the narrow door, according to the sales guy. The kits that separate the wall and shower pan and doors are expensive. They would probably add up to over $600 easily. Mmmm… That’s a bit more than I’m willing to pay. So I kept on shopping online. The on-line deal is not as economical as Home Depot or Lowe’s because the transportation costs can go as high as $100 due to the bulkiness of the product.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought I needed a second opinion. So I called up this plumber from the Craig’s List. Yes, I have had reasonable good experience with the trade/service people I found on Craig’s List. You just have to be a bit selective on how “professional” they sound in their ads. I would avoid the desperate “cheap” and “do-them-all” type of people. She asked a few questions and said she needs to diagnose the problem in person.

Fours hours later, this good looking woman with a great figure showed up in front of my apartment. I never saw a woman plumber before and was at awe. My tenant, a woman painter, was excited to see a woman plumber too. The plumber checked a few things and listened for the “quiet” dripping. She hypothesized that the shower pan is leaking water (not from the faucet) as she saw the discoloration of the wall around the shower. So she touched around the shower wall area. Sure enough, the caulk/seal was not even forming a good seal between the shower wall and the shower pan. The wall was flapping and moving. She then determined that it’s the source of the leak. She prescribed that I “go crazy” with the GE Silicone II Clear around all the joints where leaks may occur. I thanked her and asked what kind of plumbing work she usually does and if she has “others” (implying men) working with her. She said she has a crew of 3 and she’s been too busy already trying to keep all 3 employed. She left without asking for a dime.

It just happened that I have a tube of GE Clear Silicone in my car, I immediately followed her direction and went crazy with the Silicone and sealed every possible gaps I can find in the shower.

I will report back if this fixed the problem. Stay tuned….

Book Review: “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson presents a compelling case of the “long tail” – the new economics of culture and commerce. He’s got the music CD, DVD and tons of data to back up his arguments that we’re entering the “long-tail” economy, brought about by the ubiquitous internet and cheap computer technology, enabling all of us to straddle between a “head” (mainstream taste) and “tail” – niche/custom taste. It’s a “culture unfiltered by economic scarcity.”

The three forces are 1) democratizing tools of production (PC), 2) cutting the costs of consumption by democratizing distribution (Internet), 3) connecting supply and demand (Google, Itunes).

The long-tail economy is of abundance, not scarcity that contributes to the demise of the 80/20 rule, which tends to correlate to a high-fixed-cost distribution/production model. As the traditional constraint of the fixed shelf space (tyranny of shelf and physical “atoms”), the pre-filter must be selective on what to offer and put on the shelf. This is no longer true if there is no shelves; all products are available – thanks to all the small merchants brought together by the power of Amazon and Google.

At the end, the author offers the “long-tail” rules: make everything available and help me find it. Specifically, 1) move inventory way in or way out, 2) let consumers do the work, 3) one distribution method doesn’t fit all, 4) One product doesn’t fit all, 5) One price doesn’t fit all, 6) Share information, 7) Think “and” not “or”, 8 ) Trust the market to do your job – Don’t predict; measure and respond. 9) Understand the power of free.

The impact of the Internet has transformed all of our lives. I didn’t think it would have this much impact on us so soon, turning several of the old industries (like newspaper, network TV) upside down. I’m now convinced this long-tail economy is for real. The opportunities are abundant but I wonder what this means to the future job skills our children must be trained for. Does it act as one giant roller that flatten/level the playing field and global economy so much that there is really no “high-paying” profession any more, as any of the premium will be squeezed out or arbitraged out? It’s a wonderful, scary time.


Book Review: “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs

This book is a hilarious and yet sad account of one’s treacherous childhood by Augusten Burroughs. My first impression after listening to this audio book was that this whole thing was probably made up. What parents of a right mind would do such a thing to a child? But the author’s parents were not normal. The father is a alcoholic professor and the mother is just not well – a bit nutty that eventually became a lesbian and then turned against her own psychiatrist, accusing him of making sexual advance against her (probably true in my opinion). Growing up in a combative family (between the parents), the author described his childhood as a life of anarchy when he was abandoned to his mother’s psychiatrist. The life in this psychiatrist’s family was truly an adventure. He discovered his own homosexuality and encountered his first sexual experience with the guy, a patient of the psychiatric in the back house. His relationship with his “step” sister was very interesting – performing singing show in the prison, walking on the ledge under the waterfall, and etc. He was able to adjust quite well.

Once again I’m amazed by how resilient a child can be in reacting to upheavals in life. The author had to face the abandonment of his mother and his father and be left a in nut house – the psychiatrist’s family, consists of members of the oddest characters. At the same time, he was growing up discovering his own homosexuality and fending off advance from a sexual predictor in the back house.

After hearing this story, one cannot help to be cynical of the psychiatric profession. The practices sounds a bit like a snake medicine, if having the curing effect at all to be called medicine. The psychiatrist’s casual use of valium and other drug is rather unethical. I honestly don’t know how frequent this is happening or this is simply an isolated incidence.

The audio book has very graphic homosexual language/description but the narration overall was excellent. It’s like listening to a story being told by the author as if the events are taking place.

Of all the characters in the story, it’s very hard to tell who is really crazy. Is craziness a symptom of exhibiting an abnormal behavior or simply not appearing credible. Some of the most credible people (like the psychiatrist) may be crazy themselves. The gunman of the Virginia Tech massacre may have exhibited the “normal” behavior with a “craziness” hidden deep inside until it blows up.

I enjoyed this audio book. The title of the book says it all – running with scissors. Seeing others running with scissors is something to behold but not to experience yourself.


How not to get ESD zapped while exiting your car

For some reasons, I’m a walking ESD (Electrostatic Discharge) zapper. I can accumulate substantial static just by walking around or standing up from my chair, especially exiting or walking out of my car. This problem has been bothering me for years, especially during the winter season when the air is dry due to the heater plus the cold weather. This may be due to the clothing I wear or my body composition that lacks conductive paths to properly ground myself (scientific explanation).

Whatever the reasons may be, I found a good way to prevent static accumulation. It’s simple. I touch the metal portion of the door while exiting the car. By the same token, I touch a large metal body (closet frame, table frame, and etc.) while standing up from my chair. By touching a large metal body, I basically drain the static charge into the large metal body, which is large enough to absorb the electron charges or provides a conductive path to the earth ground, so I don’t have to carry the electric charges and use them as a weapon.

Now, only if I can harvest the charges to generate power ….

Season 6 of “24” TV Show

The other night, my wife and I finished the season 6 of the hit TV show “24.” Like many of the thrill seeking TV audience, we have been following the 24 episodes of the entire season, thanks to our DVD recorder box. As usual, the season ended up with Jack Bauer saving the entire California (and the country) from a terrorist-induced nuclear disaster and ended with a hook planted in the last episode (Audrey’s being kidnapped by the revengeful Chinese government).

Looking back, my wife and I started watching ’24’ last year after hearing about the show from a friend during a house party. Asking around, I found that so many people have been following the show – creating a lot of buzz. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of watching 24 episodes for an entire season, as much as I hate the Asian soap opera that could last 40 to 50 episodes. The net effect is equivalent to a “pharmaceutical” torture that CTU used to get people to confess. Well, we took the plunge and rented from Netflix and gradually finished all five seasons within a few months. I must say that watching all 24 episodes in one shot is probably more palatable than watching one episode a week as I had to do this season, because it’s much easier to follow and it’s painful to wait to see the ending – delayed gratification for TV shows is not one of my virtues.

The common emphasis within the ’24’ show is on the power of IT (Information Technology) and the people working on them. They are being portrayed as if they are the magicians that can pull a rabbit out of a hat at whims. As an IT insider, I’m proud to see that my profession is being placed in such a high regard, though I know enough to tell that most of IT tricks (like uploading huge data from any PDA to CTU, downloading GPS information in a small RF insulated space, breaking anyone’s encrypted file within minutes through a remote link) are simply not possible (yet) or are being made conveniently to fit the script. Nevertheless, I still like the show; it has the creativity to show what’s possible. Perhaps, we in the computer industry can learn to imagine a bit more.