Author Archives: Alan Ware

A Different Perspective on Programming Instruction

One of the things I like about being a mechanical engineer is the inherent fundamental simplicity at the heart of the discipline. Depending on who you talk to, there are 7 simple machines: the inclined plane, wedge, screw, lever, gear, wheel and axle, and the block and tackle(a.k.a. pulley). All machines can be thought of as a combination or application of those components.

As a designer, I crave simplicity. There is a beautiful efficiency to getting the job done with the smallest number of parts. As an engineer, I chase simplicity relentlessly because it tends to make the math easier. Regardless, simplicity in tech is often (perceived) elusive. However, if you dig deep enough, you usually find it.

So now to talk about something that is not (perceived) simple: programming. If you are familiar with me in the least, then you know that I do a lot of tech related education and instruction. Which is why it makes me happy to hear the increasing focus on STEM education, and the increasing organization efforts to support that. A lot of the time, that focuses on teaching people how to code. I support that wholeheartedly, however I do think that there are other aspects of the STEM toolbox that we could…you know what, that’s a different blog post. Let’s move on.

I don’t think the focus on coding is misplaced. Coding is sexy, mysterious. It makes millionaires out of teenagers, allows adults to retrain and adjust their careers, and does a whole lot of other things that mixed parts cool, important, and scary. Coding is powerful stuff, and people are picking up on this. I’m seeing advertisements on TV(Ok, ok, Hulu, as I rarely watch TV these days), and I’m hearing people I never would have thought saying words like CodeCademy.

Safe to say, I think computers are here to stay. So where does one start? What are the fundamental concepts of computer programming? A google search led me to an interesting article on that very subject. It essentially breaks down into 5 concepts: Variables, Control Structures, Data Structures, Syntax, and Tools. I like this breakdown, given my obsession with simplicity. It makes sense to me.

One of the many things I like about teaching is the consistent challenge it gives me. I can have all the knowledge in the world, (which I do NOT have, by the way) but communicating that to someone else is another matter. Communicating said information to children is ANOTHER matter separate from the previous, and it is in that situation that I often find myself.

Teaching children often considered underrepresented, has made me more sensitive to a lot of my own unconscious biases when instructing. Fundamental programming concepts, that makes sense to me, but how do I explain that to a youngster? Particularly one that may not have the same shared experiences I did as a youth? Or how do I take advantage of the experiences that we do share to express a concept?

I feel that instruction often hinges upon metaphors. To explain an idea someone doesn’t understand, liken it to something they do. This has been my mission for the past couple of years. It continuously amazes me how much a shift in perspective(along with a bit of patience) can go with certain demographic groups. Admittedly I’m a bit more sensitive to this because I was one of those demographic groups, and that is something I draw upon a lot in my teaching. Even armed with those experiences, I find my understanding and techniques constantly evolving to better address this challenge.

It is my position that a shift in perspective would be useful for programming instruction in under-served areas. Going back to the fundamental concepts of programming, I initially started there, but I found myself spending a lot time just trying to get those points across.  I want to make clear that is not because of any inherent difference in ability, it just comes down to exposure. (SAT bias, anyone?)

Here is my example of an alternative perspective for programming instruction based upon the hurdles I have and continue to deal with when i comes to coding instruction:

In order of importance:

1. Accessibility

2. Equivalence

3. Time to effect

4. Experimentation

5. Organization

Accessibility

I mean accessibility here in a number of ways. First meaning: accessibility of resources. What are the resources available and what are students access to them. And I mean ALL resources. A brand new computer lab with the latest software and the fastest computers made available. That is the ideal. Reality doesn’t always measure up. A lot of my teaching has been done on whatever computers I can scrounge up, and I use a lot of open source software because of hardware requirements and availability. If students have access to tools they can use on their own, on what may not be the best hardware, then the probability of them working on their own goes up. Which is what you want.

Equivalence

As an exercise, I’ve often had students go to a webpage and look at the source HTML(Ctrl-U).  In looking at the source the concept that is important to understand is that the source data and the visual page that one sees are synonymous. A change in the source will precipitate a change in the page. The best description I’ve come to for this idea is equivalence. Understanding this concept leads us to…

Time to Effect

One of the largest initial roadblocks I’ve had in programming instruction is getting students to understand what a compiler is, and why it is important. The programming workflow can be simply written as: Write Code -> Compile Code -> Run Executable. (Yes, I skipped debugging, but we’ll save that discussion for later.) I’ve often had students get tripped up in the compiler step, which is why equivalence as an idea is so important. To help lay down the fundamental blocks for computational thinking, we need to get through that middle step as quickly as possible. Having a short time to effect helps drive the idea of equivalence, or that changes in source DIRECTLY affect changes in the output. If a student gets caught up in debugging, especially with initial exposure to programming, it dilutes the impact of instruction, and at worse can create discouragement and push disengagement. Especially in beginning stages, we want to keep our students engaged, which is why we need to move source code to output as quickly as possible.

Experimentation

I am a big believer of the importance of creating safe spaces, and how important they are to facilitating learning. Just as we create safe physical space, it is also important to create a safe digital space as well. At this point, we’ve discussed the importance of having an accessible system, and how important time to effect is to driving the home the concept of equivalence. If we combine the previous three items, a situation exists that allows for experimentation. A lot is gained in STEM fields from a willingness to experiment, taking the information you know about a system, trying something new and seeing what happens. These are the type of behavior and habits that we want to instill in our future engineers. The reduction of the fear of trying something new. The confidence to not to get hung up on failure, but to view it properly as a chance to learn what did not work and to use it as a hint to what might work in the future.

Organization

After the students have started experimenting, is the time to talk about organization. Computational thinking/programming is a process, and the first step bringing new learners into that world is doing everything we can to make them comfortable in said world. Once they’ve started experimenting and figuring out some of the rules on their own, then we can start to bring in some of the accepted conventions and standards. Programming is often(but not always) a collaborative endeavor. However, even if you are working alone, the ability to arrange and structure your work so that others can follow is paramount. Also, familiarity with accepted norms and standards allows one to contribute to the larger body of work, and assists with continued self-study and improvement.

We are (slowly) becoming more aware of the difficulties faced by varying demographic groups when it comes to coding and STEM instruction. There remain varying institutional roadblocks to effectively instructing our youth in these areas. That said, there are things we can change and things we can’t, so keeping these difficulties in mind, if falls upon us to constantly iterate, view alternative perspectives, and do whatever we can to surmount these challenges with the tools we have available. I do not intend these ideas to become the end-all, be-all for coding instruction. It is another iterative step, in what should be are continuing desire to do better.

Here’s to hoping this gets you thinking.

Comic Sans and STEM: A retrospective

Recently, I was hanging out at a friend’s house and the subject of the Black Lives Matter movement came up. Now myself most often being the only black person(or a member of a single-digit cadre)around when these questions come up, I’ve gotten quite used to having these discussions. It’s a nice benchmark of how comfortable someone is with me when they start asking these questions.

My friend while appreciative of the movement’s larger aims, was perplexed at the font choice on some of the t-shirts. His position that the choice of Comic Sans to convey the message “BLACK LIVES MATTER” might dilute the desired impact of the message. (Ironically, Impact is another overused font in urban environs, but we’ll save that discussion for another day…)

In a situation that continuously repeats the longer I live in California, as I digested his assertion of improper font choice, I came to the conclusion that…yeah, he had a point. What I find even more interesting is prior to that exact moment, that thought had never crossed my mind. One of the things about growing up in minority urban environments, is that…you just get used to things. Some strange, some terrible, and others just plain unnatural.

It was at this point that I started to think about my own experience with Comic Sans. I was always somewhat computer capable as a child(remember, the internet hadn’t blown up yet), coming into the fold just before America Online(AOL) started mailing out free CDs. Sidenote: There are people in this country that STILL use AOL. I think one of the CIA guys had his AOL email hacked recently. That was one cool thing about growing up where I did, being able to explore this thing that not many people understood, and fewer cared about.

If I had to distill STEM thinking to it’s core, I would say it starts with a question. “I wonder what happens if I do this?” In this usage, “this” can literally be anything. You have a process, a way of doing, you alter…something, and see what happens. I spend a fair amount of my time on youth STEM initiatives, so I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to engage students. In so doing, I reflect a lot on my own experience.

One of the first things you learned how to do on a computer(at least in those days) was word processing. Typing. As we learned where all the buttons were, you start to poke around. Eventually you learn that you can change the text size, center justify…but you turn that corner when you find out that you can change the font! (And through that you learn what a font is.) And your head explodes. “You mean the letters can look different!”

Now as I’ve moved along my own professional path, I continue to be a student of design. Which is funny because at the beginning of my career, that was something to be left to the artsy people. Call me when you want to build something. I like to think about, talk about, analyze design because it is something that affects us all, whether we like it or not. Even if we don’t realize it. There is this subliminal quality in the visual that can evoke a physical/emotional response. That is magic to me. (Not like magic, IS magic)

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

As I moved along my journey from high school to college and beyond. I picked up little bits here and there. White space, negative space, hell, space in general. One of the things that struck me was how strongly people felt about fonts, and to a lesser degree the vitriol directed at Comic Sans. Disclaimer: I used Comic Sans as my AOL Instant Messenger(AIM) font back in the day. Thought it was cool and fun. Of course, now I know better. I feel that Comic Sans hate is just one of the rules of the internet that people eventually learn.

For all the vehemence Comic Sans generates, thinking strictly as an engineer, I think there is another legacy as well. Earlier, I described engineering thinking as, “What happens when I do this?” I think of 12 year old me in front of a computer screen, poking the edges, finding out where the limits are, and perusing through font choices. The fact that the font that I (and others) picked generates the largest absolute value emotional response can’t be ignored. It’s a first step. A clumsy, ill-informed first step, but a step nonetheless. There’s value in that.

Also, as someone who spends a great deal of time trying to get kids to care about tech, I’ll take whatever I can get. By any means necessary. Wait, that’s a quote by a different guy.

RAPID Conference Recap, Day 1

So for the next couple of days I’m going to be attending the RAPID 2015 conference in Long Beach, California, taking place at the Long Beach Convention Center. Since this is a pretty cool event to attend, I figured I’d document my experience as best I can. The RAPID Conference is put on by SME and focuses on Additive Manufacturing(AM) technologies. That is, 3D printing and related technologies. 3D printing/AM is a rapidly expanding field and this conference aims to pull a lot of that information together at the professional level.

So the first thing I can say about this conference is that I was unprepared for the scope of it. I spend a lot of my time dealing with the “lower end” of 3D printing. Roughly described as machines under $5000, Printrbots, Makerbots, RepRaps and the like. I’ve always known that there were professional grade machines ranging from the multiple hundred thousand to the millions of dollars, but there is a difference from knowing such machines exist and seeing them discussed and their specifications listed. My first inkling was my difficulty reserving a hotel room for the conference. A lot of the conference hotels were booked and I had to call multiple times to land a reservation. I was a little late to the party it seems.

Anyway, on to Day 1, Monday. One of the items on my agenda is to take the SME Additive Manufacturing Certificate Exam, which takes place on Thursday. The RAPID folks were nice enough to put on a review course for the exam Monday morning. The course was scheduled for 5 hours roughly, and while it got heavy at times, it served as an excellent overview for the professional discussion of Additive Manufacturing. I think it’s fair to say at this point I know a fair bit about 3D printing. The thing I really appreciated about this session was that it introduced a lot of the “standard” terms when it comes to AM. Lots of jargon and acronyms. Now that may seem like semantics to some, but that can really be an important element in a technical environment. You have to be able to speak the language. I had a lot of internal “Oh, that’s what you call that.”

I have standard in quotes because a lot of things in the AM field are still changing. There’s a race by everyone to differentiate(and brand) their technology. You have examples of similar(or the same) technology being called different names depending on what company is producing the machine. Fused Deposition Modeling(FDM) and Fused Filament Fabrication(FFF) is a good example of this. I can go more detail on that at another time. All of that to say, I really appreciate the effort to create some baseline standard descriptions for the processes. Also, as I would find out later in the day, this workshop gave me knowledge base to better understand some of the later presenters I saw. When that jargon starts flying around, It’s good to know what’s what.

After the Certificate Workshop Ended, I hung around for a bit and then went to the RAPID Kick off session. The beginning was the normal stuff: Thank you for coming, short overview of the conference, award presentation and announcements. There are two parts that I really want to highlight. however. First was the “What’s New: 3D Printing Roundup”, presented by Todd Grimm, president of TA Grimm & Associates, an AM consulting firm as best I could tell.

His presentation was incredible. It really drove home the fact that is nigh-impossible to keep up with everything that is going on with 3D printing/additive manufacturing. There are so many companies in the market right now, exploring all sorts of technologies. It seems that there is a big push on metal fabrication. From my own experience presenting 3D printing technology to people, that is the most common question/comment I get. When/What can be done with metal? A lot of people are making strides in that area, either by direct metal processes, printing the metal directly to a part, or indirect processes using AM/3DP tech to create molds/sandcasts/supporting objects to facilitate molding, casting, etc…

The second part I want to highlight would be the Panel Discussion on Enabling Growth of Thermoplastic Additive Manufacturing, which was immediately after the What’s New presentation. So what the panel discussion essentially covered(because the title may be confusing) was the challenges and potential solutions to 3D printing parts at volume. So large amounts of 3D printed parts. One of the challenges of 3D printing/additive manufacturing is that it is difficult to print parts time effective in large amounts. With other manufacturing processes, generally the more you make of something the faster and cheaper per unit it is to produce. With 3DP/AM this is generally not the case. If it takes you an hour to make one, it’s going to take 2 hours to make 2, 4 hours to make four, and so on.

Now, these times are generally okay for prototyping, which is generally what I describe 3D printing as being useful for. However, there is a continued push to integrate AM technology into production use, which introduces other challenges. Challenges such as material cost, time to production, and repeatability. At first, I thought I would duck out of the panel once it got started, but I found myself really getting into the discussion of the challenges/roadblocks they brought up to the maturation of the field. Some put up by the manufacturers themselves.

One facet I found especially compelling was the fact that a lot of 3DP companies essentially function as sole source suppliers for their machines. That is, if you have a Stratasys machine, you need to buy your filament from Stratasys. This is something that I hadn’t really given that much thought, until one of the panelists made an intriguing comment. If you have a HAAS CNC machine, wouldn’t it be weird if you had to buy your raw material from them as well? I’d think that was crazy. The understanding that I walked away with was that there are many aspects of the current standard operating procedures that are stifling innovation. That’s a funny thought because there is so much innovation in the AM realm right now. I personally am going to be looking forward to a point where the material manufacturers will “give in” and open up that aspect of the industry, if it comes.

The last piece for Monday was the networking reception, put on by Materialise. The reception was pretty nice, food was good. It made me realize a couple things though. One, it has been awhile since I’ve been around this many engineers. In a lot of my work environments as of late, I am “the” engineer, and have to deal with all of the rights and responsibilities of that position. It’s nice to be able to talk shop with individuals that work in the same arena you do. I was going back and forth on some the finer points of CAD design and AM mold making concerns with another engineer. Good stuff.

The second realization, is that I am one of a very small amount of black people here. I think I counted five. Now I’m not trying to make a larger statement here(at least I don’t think I am). It can make things a little difficult at times, however, such as at a networking reception. Now I’ve been at technical conferences before, and it can be a little intimidating. It’s hard enough to walk up to a complete stranger and introduce yourself in general. One of the things I always worry about in situations like this is how I’m perceived. I don’t want to seem like “this” or “that” type of person. And hopefully the person I’m talking to doesn’t have any preconceived notions of me. Also, I want to make sure that I come across as a competent professional. I bring this up because sterotypically people are supposed to be intimidated by me, but in most cases it’s the other way around. I’m absolutely terrified! You want to be able to minimize potential misunderstanding, but at the same time I have to be the one to step up and talk to people. And engineers aren’t the most social bunch… Oh well comes with the territory, I suppose.

So that wraps up day one of the RAPID conference. We’ll see what Tuesday brings. I’m looking forward to hitting the exhibit floor and seeing some good tech. I’m specifically curious if anyone is doing anything with glass. No pictures on the floor, so unfortunately I won’t be able to provide that. I also need to start prepping for that exam. Until next time.

Alan Ware, “Cyber Expert?”

news10Last week I was on KXTV 10 Sacramento, the local ABC affiliate station, to answer questions related to the recent Anthem/Blue Cross/Blue Shield hack. The data breach has been in the news as of late, you may have heard something about it. Actually, this is the third time I’ve been on ABC 10 in about the last half year. I wonder if I’m quickly becoming their resource to talk about computer-y stuff. Which I am totally okay with, by the way. (Also, big thanks to Walt Gray for inviting me down to talk for a bit.)

It’s a bit funny because most of my Hacker Lab compatriots respond to this sort of thing with a vehement “No way!” or “They don’t want me on TV…” or more responses of that nature. I suppose that lines up with the stereotypical “hacker” disposition: distrustful of authority, avoidance of the population at large, and other such behavior. Now when I say stereotypical, I mean exactly and just that. If you come down to Hacker Lab, you will find, by and large that we are respectful, welcoming, engaging, and more than willing to help. I’ve been told multiple times that the Hacker Lab building from the outside, gives off a vibe that screams, “If you don’t have business here, you should just move on…” What I’ve also been often told is that this vibe is usually quickly dismissed once you come inside. That is one of the main reasons I’ve stuck around for so long.

Going back to this “cyber expert” thing. Truthfully, that makes me a little uncomfortable. Mainly because I know actual cyber security experts and my knowledge doesn’t hold a candle to theirs. That said, I suppose I probably know a bit more about cyber security than the average person, so we’ll call that a push and move on. Anyway, as “experts”, I feel we have to work harder to interact and discuss with the community. As techies, we (stereotypically) shy away from interaction with the public at large because of social anxiety or annoyance. This creates a gap of knowledge that leads to a whole host of issues, because the people that have the information aren’t sharing it with the people that need to hear it. Of course, the people that need to hear it usually don’t want to because it’s boring and they’re otherwise not interested. I can’t tell how many times my friends/family/significant others’ eyes have glassed over when I go into full nerd mode. (At this point in my life, I try REALLY hard to tamp that down, but there are slip-ups…)

Now I could chide the listener, and I sometimes do, but I always have to turn the situation back onto myself and ask what can I do differently. Especially in academic contexts, the “rightness” or importance of what we are discussing is usually carries enough value in our minds, to make it worth someone else’s time. Often times, this sentiment is not shared by the listener, hence the glassy eyes. Again, I could blame the listener, this is important stuff, they should pay attention, and the importance should be enough. But it is often not. However, all of this information I knew before I started the conversation. So if know the mindset of my audience, know how they generally respond to this type of information, can I really be surprised at the outcome if I approach instruction from that angle? If anything I need to chide myself for expecting anything different. Should I have to chide myself and alter my message? No. Buuut, if I want to communicate with my audience, I have to start with where they are, not where I’d like them to be.

It is from this place that I try to teach. Life is all about the perspective through which you view it, and I’ve always been about dealing with the world that is, not the world I want. Your “students” usually aren’t going to come in with an appreciation for your subject matter, or at least not a proper one. In framing a message, I believe the most important thing is to frame it in a way that is relatable/digestible to your audience. You’ll have to wait a bit to drop the main idea. Got to keep them awake first.

The Arcade Machine Mk. III

2014-07-30 07.58.37So a couple of days ago, Good Day Sacramento came down to Hacker Lab to check out the latest iteration of my arcade machine. Admittedly, I didn’t finish the thing until about an hour before they came through the door…but why quibble over the details?

I have to say, it is a huge catharsis to get this thing built and up and running. Also I suppose I should thank the folks over at Good Day Sacramento for taking the time to come by, and thinking enough to feature it. (I should also thank them for indirectly lighting a fire under my bottom to get it done…) I have literally been wanting to get this built for YEARS. And yes, I got the Mk. II up and going awhile ago, but this one more accurately looks like an arcade machine. The other one was nonetheless cool, regardless.

As far as the frame itself, it’s mainly supported by 2x4s with chip board on the outside painted with chalk paint. I’m thinking that as I change the game running on the machine I can write on the outside what’s currently on it. Or maybe encourage people to write notes on the machine. It just seemed like a cool thing to do, and anytime I can use chalkboard paint, I’ll go for it. The joysticks and buttons were ordered online. The joystick panel, and speaker/head panel we’re cut on the laser cutter. On the previous iteration, I cut it with woodworking tools, and hand drilled the holes. This way was MUCH easier.

Inside of this beast, it’s just a normal desktop computer running it. Pretty similar in operation to the last one, just a bit prettier. I wanted to make sure this one was 2 player, so one side has the keyboard hack wired to the buttons directly, and the other side has an computer controller wired directly to the buttons. Had to do a little more precision soldering than I’m used to. But, as with every iteration so far, I’ve learned so much building this thing, and I have more than a couple improvements in mind. But for now, this is one metaphorical monkey off my back!

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The Japan Trip, Part 3

Friday, our first day completely on our own. Admittedly, I was a little worried about navigating the Tokyo subway system before I came to Japan. It’s complexity and the number of people that move through it are legendary. That said, with it being Japanese, it is incredibly well documented. I’ve lived in Washington DC, New York City, and spend a good deal of time in Boston, so I’m used to dealing with public transit systems. Granted, the Tokyo Metro was nothing to sneeze at, but as I mentioned before, it was INCREDIBLY well documented. Did I mention that the signs were in English as well as Japanese? As I can read a map, it wasn’t too much trouble for me. Also worth noting is the surprise the production staff expressed later when I told them I navigated the subway on my own. Needless to say, I was the navigator for our group.

We went all over Tokyo that day. We went to Ueno shrine, back to Akihabara, Shibuya, Shinjuku. Took a lot of pictures, ate ramen, went to bookstores, manga/anime shops. In Akihabara we went to this shop called Mandarake. I thank God that I didn’t have more money when I went there otherwise I would have spent all of it. I actually didn’t buy too much while I was out there, was on a bit of a budget at the time. However, the next time I make it back it will not be pretty. Believe that.

Mandarake was cool because it was essentially an otaku shop. I don’t know if that’s what they call them over there, but that’s what I’m gonna say about it. They had everything an anime and video game nerd like myself could want. Manga, video games, anime, figures. Lots of figures. There were a couple things I wanted to buy, would have bought had I the money, but it’s probably better I didn’t. Also got to play a test cabinet for Ultra Street Fighter IV. Just talking about it makes me miss it.

That night we went out to Roppongi. My biggest regret on my trip to Japan is that I didn’t go out there sooner. Roppongi has a bit of a reputation as the place where a lot of foreigners in Japan gather, and that is well deserved. Roppongi also has a reputation for other things as well, none of which I’ll repeat here. Look it up. Roppongi was cool though, it was nice to be able to talk in English for a bit, and I met a bunch of cool people. Going back I’m definitely going to have to hit up Ginza. I wanted to this trip, but I got a little nervous because I wasn’t supremely confident in my Japanese. So I stuck to Roppongi my remaining two nights.

Saturday, I spent on my own. Looking back I kind of regret this decision. Joey and Antonio(the German and Italian guys) were really cool dudes and it would have been nice to spend that last day with them. The past couple of weeks had been an incredible emotional whirlwind for me. My grandfather had just passed, and then immediately after that I find out I’m going to Japan. A thing that I have wanted to do for the greater part of a decade. I suppose on that last day I just wanted to be alone with my thoughts and kind of process everything that had happened to me and how that would impact my future from there. So I suppose I needed it, but I still feel bad for spurning Joey a bit.

Needless to say I spent most of the day in Akihabara, and the night in Roppongi. I did stop by the Meiji-jingumae, a temple not too far from my hotel. (One of the shrine maidens was nice enough to let me take her picture!) There is this weird fusion of old and new in Japan. In Tokyo at the least. You would be walking through this developed metropolitan area, multi-story building, multi-lane street, and -BAM! Temple right in the middle of it. It’s almost jarring. What’s even more jarring is that it’s not the temple that is out of place, but the buildings. I mean, the temple was there first, right? I really like that aspect of Tokyo, though. That there were this places that were set apart. That even inside this metropolitan behemoth, there were spaces that still held some semblance of…being set apart. Nice economy of space they’ve got going over there.

Sunday was breakfast and then on to the airport. One of the television station staff picked me up from the hotel and took me to the airport. We got there early so we chatted a bit before my flight. Throughout the trip they felt a bit more like handlers, which I suppose they were. However, they were really nice. When I think about it, everyone was. I suppose that’s a difficult thing about Japanese culture. Since there is so much work put into the appearance and maintaining the proper order of things, it’s is hard to tell what a Japanese person is really thinking. At least for me anyway.

Looking back, the trip was over as quickly as it began. Six days was not enough for me to be out there. However I am extremely grateful to TBS, my meetup group, the production staff, Okamura-san, my fellow “tourists”, my family, my friends, and everyone else who facilitated/supported my trip to Japan. It was an amazing, life defining experience for which I am truly grateful. I used to be angry at myself for not having gone to Japan sooner, but how that trip played out was the perfect experience for my first trip to Japan and could not have imagined a better experience.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

The Japan Trip, Part 2

Breakfast behind us, we headed back to the car and Okamura-san drove us toward our next destination. Before entering the car, the producers instructed me to ask Okamura-san about a couple of…colorful subjects on the ride over for laughs. (Apparently, it was going to be a late-night show.) I will say judging by the laughs from the staff in the van in front of us, they went over quite well. As this is not a late-night blog, I’ll leave the actual subject matter to those that actually manage to view the program. Again, good luck.

I’m not exactly sure what district of Tokyo we went to next, but by our proximity to the Tokyo Skytree, I assume it was in or near Asakusa. Again, as soon as we headed toward our destination, another group of children followed us. This time, the production assistants did a better job of keeping them back. So no flag-swatting from Okamura-san this time. We stopped at this nice shop, where inside we did calligraphy on large pieces of paper that we made into lanterns. The old school Japanese calligraphy, with the brush and ink. This was actually my first time using a brush to write Japanese characters, but I think I did okay.

Next was the most surprising leg of the trip(more than the still-breathing fish). Okamura-san then took us to a sentou, or bath-house. A Japanese public bath. This was a bit much for me, but again I had resolved myself early that day to roll with whatever came my way. So on I rolled. We later found out that this was the part of the day that the staff was most worried about. There was concern that we wouldn’t go through with it. Actually one of us didn’t. (I think he was a little shy.) The German guy(Joey) and myself decided to forge ahead. In spite of the shock value, looking back the entire experience was rather cool. At the time, I was so simultaneous blown away and embarrassed I was shooting daggers at the camera and director the entire time. I was not pleased.

So we removed our shoes and then our clothes, and put on towels. I had to politely request another towel as the one they had provided was a bit small. As much as these type places are built on ambiance and atmosphere, I have to admit that a little was lost with a dozen people(camera crew, director, translator, assistants, etc…) in there with our nearly-naked selves. They way a sentou works is that there are about a dozen or so floor level faucets in the front of the room. And the actual hot water bath in the back. (And that water is HOT…but more on that later.)  You take some of the hot water from the bath, rinse yourself off, and then enter the bathtub for a moment. You then exit the bathtub sit on these small stools in front of the floor faucets, and wash yourself off properly with soap and water, and rinse. Once clean, you then get into the bath and soak. A bit much for the uninitiated.

So we rinse, and then sit down to wash, the 3 of us in a line. Myself, Joey, and Okamura-san. Between the look on my face, and the general absurdity of the situation, most everyone is fighting back giggles and snickers. I can understand a couple of jokes being thrown around, then the suggestion is made that we should wash each others backs. So we all turn to the right, and I wash Joey’s back, then we all turn to the left and Joey washes my back. Apparently this was the funniest thing ever.

Now that we’re all good and washed, we get into the actual bath. A thing to note about Japanese baths, that water is freaking hot. Like super hot. I think they have perfected the temperature just below scalding human flesh. Immediately when I step into the bath, the hotness of the water is impressed upon me. So of course I start cursing profusely.  “S***! This water is hot!” Repeat about 6 times. The production crew got a pretty good kick out of that one as well. So after I normalize somewhat, I have to admit that the experience was pretty cool. Also, my body felt fantastic after. Our translator remarked that he had never been to a sentou. Actually, looking back on the experiences of that day, I am extremely grateful. A lot of those experiences would have been difficult to do on my own and to do all of that in one day was an amazing experience.

A trope which just about anyone who’s watched a decent amount of anime is familiar with, is what happens after characters(usually women) go to a bath or a hot spring. After exiting the bath area, we return to the changing area, where Okamura-san points out a small refrigerator with various juices and fruity milk drinks. So with our towels still on, we choose a drink(Joey and I both opted for the strawberry milk), place one hand on our hip, and with the other down the drink in (almost) one gulp. I’ve seen a similar scene in about 3 animes I can think of off the top of my head, so even I was laughing at this point. Dried off and on to the next(and last) locale.

The last place we went was a small traditional restaurant, where we made okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese dish that I would describe as a cross between a pancake and an omelet. At some restaurants, the ingredients are provided and you cook it yourself, which is how the restaurant we visited worked. It is also at this establishment that the relative smallness of locales in Tokyo was again impressed upon me. I banged my head pretty hard on the entryway, which I’m pretty sure they caught on camera. (Ouch.) My pride thoroughly shattered, we entered the restaurant. It was cramped to say the least, but still very nice.

They brought the ingredients for the okonomiyaki(and beer), and Okamura-san proceeded to teach us how to prepare the meal. The tables we sat at had a heated plate(flat griddle, I guess?) in the middle, so all we had to do was mix the ingredients together well and pour it on the plate. Not terribly complicated, but it was still pretty cool. There was a definite charm to it. Of all the things I ate in Japan(admittedly most of it was konbini food), this was definitely my favorite. Okamura-san was still ribbing us through the meal, making sure to give Antonio(the Italian guy) grief for not going into the bath. Comments were made about the speed at which I was drinking the beer. I was pretty thirsty, in my defense.

Once we finished the meal, we were informed that there was one more thing Okamura-san wanted to show us. However, due to it being rainy and overcast in Tokyo that day, we wouldn’t be able to see it. Apparently, there is this phenomenon in Tokyo that only happens in Tokyo twice a year. When the sun sets, it looks like it is going directly into Mount Fuji.  He was visibly distraught at this, but he was kind enough to bring along a picture of it. It was at this point that we presented Okamura-san with souvenirs from our home countries that we had been asked to bring. I gave him a miniature trolley car, because of my proximity to San Francisco, wrapped in the paper I had requested the day before.

We wrapped up the show by giving remarks on our thoughts of the day. It was absolutely a positive experience, through they threw quite a few curveballs at us. As I said before, as the day went on, even with all the jokes I really had to appreciate the opportunities and the experiences from that day.  It would have taken a lot off effort(and money) to replicate the day on my own, so I was(and still am) extremely grateful for the opportunity.

Shooting finished early, so we had a decent amount of time left. We(the four of us foreigners) immediately persuaded our translator to guide us to Akihabara. Akihabara is the anime/manga/video game/tech district in Tokyo. Those that know me know that such a place, for me, might as well be holy ground.  The four of us were all into anime and video games in some regard, and Akihabara was number one on all of our destination lists. At the first opportunity we were going there, and that opportunity had just presented itself.

Akihabara was amazing, a sensory overload. Very cramped as well, but at this point I really didn’t care. Shops with all sorts of miniature models and games, multi-floor game centers, it was all cooler than I had imagined. I’m a real big fan of video game arcades, but you see them less and less in the US these days. I suppose the culture has shifted. However, they are still very much active in Japan, and some of the best are in Akihabara. It goes without saying that every remaining day I spent in Japan I went to Akihabara for some part of the day.

That evening was pretty pedestrian, the four of us ended up walking around Akasaka a bit, but as it turns out there weren’t too many places open at night that district. As I found out later, the place to go late night in Japan is either Ginza or Roppongi, but again, more on that later. The Italian girl was flying out the next day as she had to be be back for school stuff, so we all decided to hang out that night. The remaining three of us were sticking around until Sunday.

The Japan Trip, Part 1

2014-01-29 20.40.17Ok, so this is kinda related, right? Japan is high-techy.

So for those of you that aren’t aware, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Tokyo, Japan. As I keep getting asked, “How was it?” I figured that I might as well blog about it in the hopes that it might save me one or two retellings. (It probably won’t)

So the reason for my trip to Japan was to appear on a Japanese television show, “Okamura Japanese Tourist.” The show was hosted by Takashi Okamura, a very famous Japanese comedian. I didn’t realize how famous until I got to Japan. I don’t want to spend to much time on the how and why of it, but essentially I was forwarded an email by a friend regarding an opportunity to appear on this program last December. I submitted myself for it, along with a questionnaire and a short video. About 4 weeks ago, I was contacted and informed that I had been selected to go to Japan. About 10 days notice, I think.

We’ll also skip all the hoops I had to jump through to facilitate my exit from this country…on Tuesday, January 28th at about 11:00PM I arrived in Japan at Haneda airport. A couple of representatives from the television agency were there to pick me up, and promptly carried me to my hotel. I was given ample time to practice my Japanese on the taxi ride over, as I think my Japanese was better than their English.

2014-01-29 00.30.36After checking in to my hotel in Tokyo, I finally got the key to my closet room. Seriously, this room was small. It doesn’t help that I’m 6’6″ either. My immediate though when entering was, “Where is the rest of it?” A bit of a shock, honestly. Though this was my first visit to Japan, I’d like to think I am not unfamiliar with Japanese culture. As I found out many times during this trip, there is a big difference between reading about a place and actually being there. Also, I don’t think there is another city in the world like Tokyo, so I had to keep that in mind as well.

One more bit about the hotel room. the toilet was freaking awesome. Heated seat, water that shot up(at 3 different settings!) and…well you get the idea. If you don’t, go google Japanese toilets. It was awesome. probably the thing I miss most about the country. Seriously, when I make my first million, I’m getting one of those suckers imported. The shower was pretty cool as well, other than the fact that I had to squat a bit in the shower because I was taller than the spigot. Heck, sometimes I have to do that here in America! So, I wasn’t really upset about that. The room was small but the toilet more than made up for it.

I pretty much slept till about 1 the next day(Wednesday). I did wake up for breakfast(and go immediately back to sleep after). Nothing too out of the ordinary, at least by Japanese standards I think. Scrambled eggs, rice, sausages, miso soup, fish, croissants. Meeting with the TV producers at 5, so I figured I’d take a little walk. My hotel was in a district of Tokyo called Akasaka. From what I could tell, it looked like a good mix of business and residential. I don’t have much to say about the walk. Saw my first konbini. For the unschooled, konbini are Japanese convenience stores. Somewhat similar to what we have here, though konbini are quite a bit more expansive. They sell food, and that food is cheap and GOOD! I primarily ate at konbini while in Japan. I was on a tight budget, but I do not regret the decision. If you should go to Japan, and find yourself in a konbini, get the chicken. You will not be dissapointed!

We met with the producers at 5, inside of the broadcasting station headquarters that was literally right across the street from my hotel. I say “we” because I was not the only person selected for the show. There was an Italian young woman and man, a German guy, and my American self. Ages spanned from early to late 20’s, four of us total. A funny thing I’ve come to notice is that I always feel more American when I travel outside of the country.  Maybe It’s that national pride kicking in or something.

I think the entire experience didn’t become real to me until we entered that TV station. The TV station was grand, very large lobby. As cramped as everything else in Tokyo was, I noticed that the office buildings were impressively spacious. Maybe some cultural aspect there I don’t fully understand. The last thing of note about the lobby was the reception desk, where about 6 Japanese female receptionists sat. All very pretty of course. I don’t know why that struck me so, I suppose it seemed so stereotypically Japanese it hurt. The perfect immaculate facade presented. I knew enough about Japanese culture to expect it, but I suppose it actual practice you expect there to be a little deviation from the supposed ideal. In Japan this is not the case. It appeared to me that presentation is of the utmost importance, a theme I saw repeated during my trip.

The meeting with the producers was interesting. After passing through that lobby, signing in, getting out visitor badges, I finally started to get nervous. “I’m actually in Japan. This is a real thing that’s happening. Holy s***!”  The staff was awesome though. The meeting was pretty much an check-in and overview. They had asked us to bring a couple of things, Tokyo travel guide, souvenir for Okamura-san, a couple of other things. Earlier I had asked for wrapping paper for my souvenir, as I remembered that wrapping of presents was pretty important in Japanese culture, and I wanted to be mindful of that as best I could. In retrospect I don’t think it mattered that much, but I got wrapping paper and a set of scissors out of the deal. The producer also asked questions about us, why we were interested in Japanese, how long we had been studying, what we liked about Japanese culture, and so on. At this point please note, unless I’ve said otherwise these conversations are happening in Japanese, so that adds another layer of stress to the exchange. Granted, we had an interpreter, but he let us try our own hand as best we could. My Japanese still has a ways to go, but I did okay.

After the meeting, they bought us dinner. I believe this was to make us sleepy so we wouldn’t go out that night and possibly be tired for shooting the next day. I impressed them with my beer-quaffing skills, but that’s a story for another time… After the dinner the four of us foreigners walked around Akasaka for a bit, but it was pretty much dead after 9. I later found out that Roppongi or Ginza was the place to be late at night, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself…

2014-01-30 07.14.42Thursday, the day of filming. They herded us into a van at about 6 in the morning and carted us off to an undisclosed location. All of the film crew was pretty mum about what we were going to do that day, as they wanted to preserve the surprise for us. We stayed in the van for awhile, about 30-45 minutes or so. It took us about 20 minutes to look out the window and realize we were at the base of Tokyo Tower. *facepalm* A little after sunrise, we got were mic-ed up and hung out in front of the tower to await Okamura-san. We, of course decided to pass the time taking ridiculous pictures. Please note, anything I describe after this point was most likely caught on film, as they filmed EVERYTHING.

Okamura-san comes up with a little bit of fanfare, introduces himself, and then has us introduce ourselves and do the embarrassing thing we did for our submittal video. For the sake of my pride, I will not share what I did for mine, so if you want to know, you’ll have to find the show in Japanese. Good luck. After introductions were out of the way, we then hopped into a car(complete with video cameras) that Okamura-san drove to our next destination. The production car drove in front of us, giving Okamura-san cues and directing some of the banter on the way to our destination.

2014-01-30 08.48.55The first stop was at some sort of market. Honestly, I still don’t know where we were. I should probably research that. As we made our way through this market, I began to realize how famous Okamura-san was. I could hear people saying(translated from Japanese obviously), “Wow is that Okamura-san?” “That’s Okamura-san, wow!” Stuff like that. And then there were the schoolchildren. Once one kid saw him, told his bud, next thing we know we have 50 Japanese kids following us. I think that it is a custom with shows like this for the host to carry a small flag with the name of the program on it. One kid got a little too close and Okamura-san swatted at him with the flag. Hilarious.

2014-01-30 09.09.12As this was a market, there were all sorts of food about. I had made up my mind as this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I was going to roll with whatever they threw as best I could. So yes, I ate a lot of weird things. Most, I don’t even know what they were, and I think that’s for the better. Umeboshi, dried squid, some type of scrambled egg thing, raw oyster, I went along with at best I could. Most to the chagrin of my tummy. Finally we reached our destination! A restaurant, that served sushi among other things, from what I could tell.

2014-01-30 09.32.41 So the first thing I noticed about this restaurant that there were two very large fish tanks behind the counter. We were seated, then Okamura-san said something I didn’t understand to the person behind the counter. What happened next was the first of many shocks of the day. Said individual then proceeds to grab a net, pull a fish out, gut it, slice him up, and put him on a plate. All directly in our view. So now I have a fish in front of me, that less than 2 minutes ago was swimming minding his business. A little too fresh for me. Mind you, this fish was so fresh that his severed head was still breathing. At this point I lost it. I am freaking out. I was told I squealed. I don’t think so, but if I did, I’m sure it will make the final cut of the show.

2014-01-30 09.35.43I actually did eat the fish, and truthfully it wasn’t that bad. That said, I don’t think I’ll be ordering it on subsequent trips to Japan. Compared to the lead-off, the rest of the meal was pretty pedestrian. A few pieces of sushi and some natto. Natto, for the unschooled, is made from fermented soybeans, and are quite popular with some Japanese. It also smells horrible. Natto was one of those things that I wanted to eat once just to try it and experience it. I will not be eating it again.

Loss

It is not my intent to make this blog too personal, but grant me this deviance.

So my grandfather died this morning. No 3am phone call. 8:30am phone call. So I got woken up to hear that news. Great. So as I sit here and process that information, what do I feel? Relief? I mean he was pretty old, and had been rather sick lately.  Guilt? Maybe I should have called him that one last time? Told him I loved him? I’d like to think I prepared myself for this as much as I possibly can, and yet I still feel bad. I’m not surprised mind you, it would be foolish of me to think that the passing of the most powerful male figure in my life would not cause me to feel anything, regardless of how much I prepared for it.

Death is a funny thing, we all know it will eventually come for us and yet a good deal of people just up and ignore it. Maybe in the hope that it will eventually go away? Self-delusion is a powerful tool, but in the end it just harms more than it helps(I think, at least). Over the years I’ve tried to get better at facing death head on, be real about whats happening, accept the feelings as they come rather than try to paint over them with a variety of options. As complicated as divisions between people become, I’ve always found it remarkable how the root cause can be simple misunderstandings or miscommunications. Seemingly small things that, because of emotion, fester into these tangled masses that no one recognizes. And nothing brings out emotion like a death… However, I’m not going to spend all this time waxing philosophical. I’m going to talk about my grandfather, though there will most likely still be some waxing.

When I think of my grandfather, I think of this huge, larger than life individual. When I was a kid, I was so small and he was so…well, big. I used to think that I was a small child. Now I’m of the viewpoint that I was only small relative to those around me. You see, I started school 2 years early.(The story behind that is one for another time.) At that time in my life my father wasn’t around a lot, and my grandfather was the one that I looked to often. He’s the person that I drew most of my ideals on what it meant to be a man and many of those I carry with me to this day.

A turning point in any child’s life is the day they realize their parents aren’t perfect. With my grandfather, I didn’t realize when that day was, even more to the point I didn’t care. I didn’t care what other folks parents’ had done are what they had done. He was mine, and that was all that I cared about. As I type this, I realize that I have a mess of cousins that would simultaneously agree and disagree with me on that point. I also realize that the grandfather I know, may not have been the same father my mother and uncles knew, the same husband my grandmother knew, maybe not even the same grandfather my cousins know. He wasn’t perfect, a fact that was made even more apparent when some of his wilder stories began to trickle to my ears as I got a little older. Even after hearing some of those stories, it didn’t change my impresssion of the man one bit.

As I previously stated, I was smaller and younger than everybody at school, and looked it to boot. Solid attachments at school were a hard thing to come by for me, and my family stability at home was always a factor for my well being. And my grandfather was always this rock. When I was younger it really annoyed me. If I was having some trouble with kids in the neighborhood, he would rarely get involved. Truthfully, if he got anywhere near it, it had to be pretty serious. But he always listened. He was always patient, a trait I later learned was unique to me. Actually Grandpa had quite a temper, but I don’t ever remember him ever yelling at me. And there were times I know I deserved it, maybe even expected it. It never came. Just the same constant voice. It wasn’t like he had to raise it anyway.

I think my grandfather was the first person to pick up on my technical savvy. I’d like to think I was born to be an engineer, and when I was little I was constantly taking stuff apart…and putting it back together. Most of the time it was already broken…but a couple of times it wasn’t. The first thing I ever remember fixing was the remote control for the TV set. I was young too, single digits. He had spilled soda on it and it quit working, and was ready to call it gone. I asked him, practically begged him if he would let me try and fix it. Now under most circumstances, my grandfather would not give you an outright no. He would say it’s a waste of time, it couldn’t be done, something like that. For whatever reason, that time he decided to relent and probably figured I’d get tired of it eventually. I pulled out his tool set opened it up, cleaned it off, and put it back together-and it worked! He was so surprised. I was just happy to prove an adult wrong, which apparently I had a taste for when I was younger.

Little did I know what future work I had laid out for myself. It quickly changed from me asking him could I fix things, to him asking me to fix things. When I got older and went away to school, that changed into things waiting on me at home to be fixed whenever I made it home. I really enjoyed being helpful to him. And it just wasn’t fixing stuff. I helped do all sorts of stuff around the house as well. He taught me how mow the grass, trim the bushes, all sorts of repairs around the house. As I got older(as did he) and his eyes got worse, I was often his hands for him. He’d say what needed to be done and I did it. There would be this twinge of concern on his face and in his voice, fearful that I would hurt myself and me charging ahead full speed. I still have all my fingers so I guess we made out okay.

Maybe I could describe my grandfather as an old-school hacker. I mean he got the job done! It may not have been pretty, or elegant, but at the essence that’s what hacking is. Getting the job done with out regard to prior skill or talent. Haha, my grandfather the hacker, maybe that’s where I get it from.

My grandfather was always insecure about his intelligence, he only finished up to the 6th grade. Make no mistake though, my grandfather was an intelligent man! He was very adept as reading social situations, and people. He just knew how to get stuff done, he paid his bills, took care of the house, let me “borrow” money. I never thought he should feel that self-conscious given what he accomplished. I think it was part him flying under the radar, and part him being old and no one around having the stripes to call him on his stubborness. One of the perks, I suppose.

At the end of it all, I’d be foolish to believe that this rose-colored view of my grandfather is the sum of the whole man. He may have lived a hundred lives before I was born, and now on to another one since he has departed. What has been left are a number of memories that are very important to me. Slightly delusional? Maybe? But I’m okay with that. Earlier I said that self-delusion is a bad thing. I’d like to amend that slightly. I think delusion becomes dangerous when it interferes with your ability to process reasonable or conflicting information. When you’re so attached to the image, the veneer, that you hold it beyond reproach. That’s a problem. The grandfather I knew? That was real, maybe not the whole story…but I’ll still hold on to that piece. I suppose that’s not exactly a delusion then, but don’t know what to call it. I like the idea better of celebrating what he taught me rather than cry that he’s gone. Though I still will cry a little.

True Fear

I would say that as an engineer, you have not experienced fear until the moment someone installs a part you have designed. Something that I have noticed over the years through multiple work environments, is the desire to get it right the first time. Now some may look at that statement and say, “Of course you want to get it right the first time!” Which is true, somewhat. Design is an iterative process, and sometimes steps have to be repeated. Prototyping is essential.  In some instances, you don’t recognize issues until the part is in your hand and you’re looking at it. Of course as you repeat any process, you apply lessons learned, streamline, and quicken said process.

The issue that comes forth is when the streamlined process is expected right off the bat. Faster, cheaper, better is always what management wants. The importance of prototyping is diminished because similar work has already been completed, and individuals can build from that. Or that’s what your boss thinks, at least. Vertical pressure notwithstanding, there is always a since of foreboding with any recently built design. The self-reflection, checking, and internal questions. “Did I miss something? What if it fails? Maybe I shouldn’t have made that assumption…” As the engineer, if that part fails everyone immediately looks to you as the cause. (I mean you designed it.)

While design problems are the reflex answer, by no means are they the only possibility. Material deficiencies, production, improper scope, there are numerous cause that can lead to problems with design implementation. However, as is often the case with design(and business for that matter), the first task is proving that the problem isn’t your fault. It’s the fear of that situation that gives me butterflies whenever I see a part I’ve designed in use the first time.