One of my favorite people

Beah recently did a talk at Walnut St. Labs in Pennsylvania about what she’s learned in her career, and I enjoyed watching it tonight during dinner. One of the things that I remember from when Beah first joined Google is that she actually had, I believe, three job descriptions, plus she was asked to learn Thai. I’ll be talking more about how inspirational Beah is in an upcoming post.

Checking sources

I was recently asked what students today should be learning. One of my responses was that given that they have access to an unprecedented amount of information from an unprecedented number of sources, they should learn how to do research with noisy data. The idea is to give students the benefits of access (no arbitrary “Don’t trust anything you read on Wikipedia!” rules) by giving them the skills to read those citations and evaluate credibility.

This is not a new skill. Even in a well-curated library, one should check cited sources, and understand that just because someone wrote it in a book, that doesn’t mean that it’s true. Mistakes happen, misunderstanding happen, memories aren’t always accurate, and people lie. However, there’s a barrier to entry when it comes to getting something published in a book in a library. On the Internet, there’s not much of a barrier to getting something published. I’m doing it right now from my couch, writing whatever I want with confidence, without any verifiable credentials, and without an editor. And for whatever reason, you’re still reading.

Of course, the ease of publishing information online is awesome. We can get information from sources around the world who might never bother to get a book published. We can hear directly from primary sources as they publish blog posts and tweets.

Ok, now that I’ve stated what is probably obvious to most people who are reading this, here’s a story from yesterday. A friend shared this photograph with the caption “A Single Drop of Seawater, Magnified 25 Times”:

along with a link to this page.

I raised an eyebrow. Not being a biologist, I could have believed that all of those creatures lived in a single drop of water. But, I have seen many drops of water in my life, and I was pretty sure that I could fit more than 25 of them in the space of that image. I got curious. At first, I thought that maybe just the number was off. Maybe it was a single drop of water magnified 250 times. Let me retrace my steps and show you what I found.

The first cited source, Colossal, doesn’t look bad. The author credits and links to the photographer, there’s a link to something that he spotted in the image (whatever a diatom is), and he helpfully credits his source with a “via” link to another page on a site called Lost At E Minor. Off to LAEM I went. That page also uses the “25 times” number, but describes the image as a “splash” and “bucket” of seawater. Not a drop. Interesting. So just how much water is it? The “via” link on Lost At E Minor goes directly to the website of the photographer, David Liittschwager. I was pretty close to my eventual answer at that point, but I got off track a bit visiting a bunch of other sites where the photo had been shared. After searching for [David Liittschwager seawater], however, I quickly found that the image had appeared in National Geographic, a reputable source. The first page that I landed on mentioned a “dipperful of seawater,” but I wasn’t sure if that was referring to the exact image on the page, as it was part of a series of photos. When I got to the second picture in the series, the image in question, I again saw the quantity described as a “splash,” and a helpful note that the crab larva is “the size of a rice grain.” I was pretty much set at that point. A small rice grain can fit in a large drop of water, but the crab only takes up a small portion of the picture. This is bigger than a drop. Upon revising David’s site, I found a link to “Marine Microfauna,” but the page was hosted on .Mac, which has been shut down. Archive.org’s WayBack Machine came to the rescue and I was able to navigate to this page which captions the photos with “contents of one dip of a hand net.” So so there you are. All of the creatures in the photograph fit in one hand net. Is it at 25x magnification? I don’t know. The crab is supposed to be the size of a grain of rice. I’m relatively new to rice, but that looks about right to me.

Should you research every single statement you see in a tweet? I don’t think so. It doesn’t really matter if that’s a picture of a drop of water or a bucketful; the point is there’s a lot of life in the sea. But if you ever get really curious about something, dig deeper.

I mentioned evaluating credibility at the beginning of this post, and I’m ending it with a quick one-minute tip from Dan Russell on one feature you can use to evaluate credibility online.

Air Travel tips

Living on the opposite coast of my family, I fly fairly often—about one trip per month on average. Sometimes travel can be a little annoying, but for the most part, I’ve found that the actual experience is way better than its reputation would lead one to believe. As Louis C.K. put it: “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” And if you’re not convinced, remember that it’s at least better than it used to be.

Of course there are many factors in my favor when I travel: I generally fly alone, so when I book I only have to find one good seat. I don’t have kids, so there’s no dealing with that. And, I’m usually on cross-country flights between major cities, so I’m on direct flights on bigger and nicer aircraft. But in addition to the luck I’ve described, I’ve learned a few other things over time to help make the flying experience a little nicer. I wrote most of the following as an email, but since the advice may be useful to others, I’m pasting it into a blog post.

Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

Global Entry lets you skip the line when re-entering the United States. Sign up for this well ahead of your trip since you’ll need to schedule an “interview” to confirm your identity in person ahead of your trip. The signup form is long, but it’s worth it. Some American Express cards will give you credit for the registration fee, so pay with an AMEX if you have it.

Along with getting to bypass the lines at immigration, you’ll also get a “Known Traveler Number,” also known as a PASS ID. You can use this number to get TSA PreCheck on any airline that supports it. TSA PreCheck generally has shorter lines, and it moves a lot faster since you walk through a metal detector, you don’t have to take off your shoes, and you don’t have to take anything (like laptops) out of your bag. Just look for the field that says “Known Traveler Number” when buying your tickets. I enter it every time, even if I should already get PreCheck through the airline’s frequent flier program, just to be safe.

I wrote more about Global Entry and PreCheck last year.

Seat Guru

I’m usually flying the same planes, so I know where my favorite seats are. But whenever I’m booking a flight on an unfamiliar plane, I try to remember to consult Seat Guru. It provides information about the seats on the type of plane you’re on, including legroom, recline, and storage space.

Premium Economy

United calls it Economy Plus. US Airways calls them “Preferred” seats. Virgin America calls it Main Cabin Select. In every case, I’ve found them to be worth the extra money to get a more comfortable ride without upgrading to first class. The prices are often quite high at the time of booking, but you have a couple of other options. You can take your chances and try to get an upgrade when you check in (still for a fee), or if you have status on the airline, make sure you’re signed in to your account when booking, and you may see the good seats available for no extra charge.

One-way flights

You often don’t save any money when booking round-trip domestic flights, so try looking at your outgoing and return flight options individually, since that will give you more options for flight times, airlines, and even airports. I’ve often flown out on one airline and back on another. I’ve even switched up the airports, so I might fly into EWR and out of PHL.

My airline of choice: Virgin America

I fly them whenever possible. It’s a much more comfortable experience. All of their flights have WiFi, and they have two power outlets for every three seats. In Main Cabin Select you get extra legroom plus free food, drinks, and movies. One thing that’s been hard to get used to with them is that the status-based upgrades don’t flow nearly as freely as I’m used to on US Airways, but it also means that upgrades are almost always available if you check in early enough. You can upgrade to Main Cabin Select 24 hours prior to departure or first class six hours prior to departure. You can upgrade to first class earlier if you have status.

Funneling miles

The short version of this is: For each alliance that you fly, choose one airline as your “main” airline and use that frequent flier number on all airlines in that alliance.

The long version: Most airlines are part of an alliance, which means that you can earn miles (which count towards frequent flier status), on any member airline. Normally, if you fly 10,000 miles one year on United, and 15,000 miles on US Airways that same year, you wouldn’t reach “Silver” status on either airline. But, if you used your US Airways frequent flier number when booking on US Airways, and also used your US Airways number when booking on United, then you’d reach Silver status on US Airways. That means that you’ll get free upgrades and other goodies on US Airways, and you’ll have “Star Silver” status on all Star Alliance airlines (assuming you book with your US Airways number), which can mean things like priority boarding and free checked bags, even if you have no status on that particular airline. This example won’t be valid forever; both United and US Airways are currently members of the Star Alliance, but US Airways is going to leave with the American merger.

More tips

I start most of my flight searches on Google Flight Search, and not just because I work there. It doesn’t have as many options as some other flight search providers, but it’s super-fast. The results update instantaneously as you change your search.

All airlines have different policies, so check their websites to figure out all of your options for upgrades, etc.

If you’re interested in the best way to get award travel using credit cards, I’m not the expert on that, but there are plenty of guides out there where people have done the math. I am starting to funnel my purchases to a card that earns status-qualifying miles after a certain threshold.

I have a ton of other ground transportation tips, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I haven’t yet gathered all of those into a single post.

Don’t get hacked!

Every now and then a new Google feature comes along that I feel the need to blog about instead of just sharing the announcement in Reader. The feature that I’m writing about today isn’t really flashy or magical, but it’s incredibly important, and it applies to everyone. It’s not just for geeks. In some ways, it’s especially not just for geeks.

Please take 15 minutes of your time to enable 2-step verification in your Google account. This is time well-spent. It makes it much harder for someone who is not you to access your account and do nasty things like tricking your friends into sending money to a scammer. This is especially important if you use the same password on multiple services like Facebook and Twitter or your school email, which you totally shouldn’t do by the way, but I know many people do.

Please enable this feature on your own account, and you bonus points if you help friends or family members enable it on theirs.

And while you’re at it, remember to back up your data.

Good as new

It’s always fun to get something new, but there are many things that can’t be replaced very often. Here are some ways I’ve found to get that same feeling of excitement in the interim.

A brand-new car!
I feel pretty good when I take my car through a $5 gas station car wash. But I feel great when once a year or so, I splurge for a full detail—polish, wax, and shampooed carpets. It can be a bit pricey depending on what you get, but it’s cheaper than a new car. Or, if you have a garage or other area where you can work on your car, you can do it yourself.

New apartment
One of my favorite things about a new house or apartment is the freshly installed carpet. Even though I try to vacuum regularly, any carpet can get grungy over time. I recently discovered the joys of owning and operating a steam cleaner, and it’s a lot easier than moving to a new apartment. Steam cleaning takes longer than regular vacuuming because you have to do multiple passes and refill/empty the tanks, but I actually found it kind of fun.* It reminded me of what my stage crew teacher used to say about sweeping the stage. He liked doing it because it was like a form of meditation.

New computer
I can get a good six years out of a computer. To get that “new computer” feeling, I recommend a clean install of the operating system (make sure to back up your data first!) and the addition of some fresh RAM. Don’t forget you can also physically clean your machine.

* Disclaimer: I really did enjoy it, but I also enjoy sitting in front of a front-loading washer and watching my clothes spin around. Seriously. So, I hope that sets the right expectations.

My apology to Ai

Ai, Nelson‘s favorite pronoun, is mad at me. Why? Because she’s offended by weather. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but this is how girls think. So, Ai, allow me to say here on my blog, from the bottom of my heart, that I’m sorry.

Here’s what went down. Last night, at an event organized by Ai, we surprised Nelson with a birthday dinner at Vung Tau in San Jose. It was my first time at a Vietnamese restaurant, and while I was terrified of what I might eat, the food actually very good, including some spongy vegetable I had never seen before in an unidentified soup. That part of the evening went pretty well, and I even brought a sufficient amount of cash for when it was time to pay the bill, although I did have to ask for change. (I still I can’t believe that in 2009, cash is something I find myself using, but I could write an entire series of blog posts about how I hate carrying around paper and why restaurants should be better equipped to handle multi-card payments.)

After dinner, we headed to the Peacock Lounge in Sunnyvale. It’s a bar, the type of venue I could write countless more parenthetical complaints about, but I was happy to attend and support Nelson on his birthday. Things were going pretty well, I was doing okay with talking to Nelson’s friends in between segments of faux interest in whatever sports they were showing on the TVs, but then Ai confronted me about something.

“So I was reading your blog,” she said.

“Uh oh,” I replied, secretly thrilled that anyone had read it, regardless of whether or not it was about to lead to me getting yelled at.

She then told me that she had serious issues with what I had said about California in one post. She claimed that I said that I wouldn’t miss my friends, and called my description of weather and seasons (for the benefit of Californians) “condescending.”

She schooled me a bit on her history with, “I spent some time living in Illinois. I know what weather is.”

My post was meant to exclude Californians who had spent some time living in Illinois, but I forgot to explicitly state that so again, Ai, I’m sorry.

At the time, I was fatigued and not thinking straight, so I attempted to get out of trouble using logic and not just apologizing. After I pointed out out several flaws in her accusations with quotes from my post, like “I like California,” and “I will miss some people,” she said that it’s not her fault if she misunderstood what I wrote. At this point, I may have, if one interprets my words a certain way, subtly implied that she has poor reading comprehension skills when I told her, “You have poor reading comprehension skills,” and noted that I write at an advanced level. Eventually, when the conversation got to the point of “Oh, boy, she might not be taking this argument as a joke like I am,” (this happens to me a lot) I came to my senses and added this to my Gmail Tasks list on my iPhone: “Apologize to ai because girls are scary and I always agree with them as a life rule.”

So why did I decide to apologize? It’s a defense mechanism I’ve developed over time, and it’s part of a (previously) strategy that I think I’ve only shared with Ted until now. Two main rules of this strategy are:

  1. In an argument where you are forced to take sides, always agree with the girl.
  2. When in doubt, apologize.

Let’s go over #2, since it is the relevant rule here: When in doubt, apologize. Even if I think it’s a situation where there is no argument and nobody should feel guilty, I just play it safe and fill any awkward silences or otherwise confusing moments with an apology. Let’s see if it saves me this time around.

Shampoo

Here’s a public service announcement for all of my readers who have hair and wash it.

I was talking to my uncle today, and he mentioned that it saves him money if he gets his hair cut really short, since he can then go for six weeks without getting it cut again. I suggested that he probably also saves money on shampoo when it’s really short.

He then pointed out that this is only true if you think to adjust your shampoo usage when you squeeze it out of the bottle. And when I thought about it, I’m pretty sure that regardless of length, I always put the same-sized glob of shampoo on my hand before applying. The only case where my usage changes is when my hair gets really long and I add a second coat of shampoo.

So, if you haven’t thought to do this already, try using a smaller glob of shampoo when your hair has been recently cut.

Skiing/Snowboarding

Submitted via the Personal Wyszdom request:

Skiing/Snowboarding – Mountain Virg
From: NIGHT HAWK

I have never been skiing, or snowboarding…  in fact, i’m
not even sure if snowboarding is one word or two.  I’m going tomorrow
for my very first time ever.  Going to do what you ask?  There in lies
the question… what am I to do?  Ski or Snow Board?

In addition to not knowing which art of winter rec sport to engage, I
am also uncertain as to what I will need to ensure maximum
satisfaction from the experience.  Particularly with regard to
apparel.  I’d imagine I need snow pants and goggles (not googles) at
the very least.

Any other advice for mountain virgins?

I must begin my answer by apologizing to Mr. HAWK. His question was submitted back on January 23rd, and I didn’t notice it until today since my advice queue had been so stagnant. Hopefully things turned out well for him without my advice.

I’ve only been a skier, but as far as I can tell, skiing and snowboarding are both pretty similar. Here are some differences to keep in mind:

  • Skiers and snowboarders do not mix well on chairlifts. Skiers keep their skis facing forward, while snowboarders relax with their boards at an angle. If you’re going to be hanging out with a group of all snowboarders or all skiers, just do whatever they’re doing.
  • Snowboarders spend about 90% of their time just laying on the middle of the hill for no reason.
  • Snowboarders don’t have poles, which is pretty inconvenient if you have to deal with flat terrain.
  • Some snobby resorts do no allow snowboarders.
  • Skiing is probably more dangerous, because there’s a lot of stuff that can get tangled up, and your legs can travel in two different directions.
  • If you wipe out while skiing, you may have to hike up the hill to retrieve several items.
  • Ski boots are really uncomfortable, even if you’ve had them custom-fit for your feet. I don’t know how snowboarding boots feel.

Regarding apparel:

  • You’ll probably fall a lot as a beginner, so if you try to ski or snowboard in just jeans you’ll get soaked pretty quickly. Make sure you get snow pants and a good jacket, both waterproof. They should block the wind well too, since that can really chill you. If you don’t mind looking a little dorky, get a one-piece jumpsuit which will virtually eliminate the chances of the snow getting up under your jacket when you fall. If you go with separate snow pants instead, you are taking a bigger risk but you get to wear suspenders. Life is full of compromises.
  • Get a hat that you’ll be comfortable wearing all day and that keeps your ears covered.
  • Get a comfortable neck warmer, but only wear it over your face if it’s too cold to do without. Otherwise, keep it around your neck only or substitute it with a scarf.
  • Get some goggles. If it’s cold, sunglasses won’t do because you’ll want to block your entire face from the wind. Sunglasses also aren’t ideal when you’re starting out and falling a lot.
  • Hand and toe warmers are wonderful if you need them, but don’t use them if they’re not necessary because they’ll make you sweat.

Other things to bring:

  • Phone (if you find out that you don’t get service on the mountain, buy some radios with your friends)
  • Camera
  • Tissues
  • ChapStick
  • Food (granola bars work pretty well)
  • Wallet
  • Trail map

Have fun! And NIGHT HAWK, please let me know how everything turned out.