Sunday, September 25, 2011

First impressions - Tbilisi

Just as with people, I often find my first 24 hours in a new city tends to set the tone and emotion for the rest of our time together. If that's the case, then I have to say I'm quite enamored with Tbilisi and Georgia thus far. The most impressive facet about Georgia so far is not the architecture, though it is surprisingly gorgeous; nor the food, though it is wonderfully rich - it's the people, how incredibly nice they are to total strangers like us. While "hospitality" is quite a cliched term in travel guidebooks, even I was surprised by just how spontaneous and genuine their affection have been for total strangers like ourselves. Though I no longer consider myself a road newbie at this point, I was still humbled and touched by just how generous they were; once again it proves the adage that there are truly nice people everywhere in the world. 

Case in point, we've only been in the city for 24 hours, and already we've had more than our fair share of serendipitous encounters with strangers. Normally when I get one in a day, I'm counting my lucky stars. Getting a handful feels simply…overindulgent. Last night, when we were lost trying to find our hostel, a random guy off the street kindly escorted us all the way there, despite it being almost midnight. In the morning, a policeman very nicely helped us purchase our metro ticket to Rustaveli, and asked another stranger to take us through the station. Coming out of the sublime Obeliani baths, a very cute Georgian girl waved us into her shop for free (!) wine tasting. Sadly, her co-worker did most of the talking after we came in, I guess her mission was accomplished once we walked in. While buying water tonight, the women manning the register were only too happy to give us some travel advice around her homeland…just too many examples to count. In general, between Eric's fluent Russian and my non-existing Georgian, we probably only understood 2% of what anyone says to us. Nonetheless, almost everyone treats us with with seemingly infinite patience, and a wide wide smile at our feeble attempts of Georgian. If this first day is any indication, we're going to be spoilt rotten by the end of this trip. 

The wonderful people aside, I have to say Tbilisi is definitely one of most charming cities I've ever been too. A total hidden gem, probably what Prague was like 30 years ago before it was crushed by tourists. The Mtkvari river runs through the heart of the city, and with the Narikala Fortress and Sameba Cathedral on the hilltops by the river overlooking the Old town, it reminded me a lot of Budapest or Vilnius. The country is by no means rich, and the capital reflects much of its hardship in recent years. Walking around, we would see scores of dilapidated buildings, torn-up streets, stray animals, and an occasional power outage or two. Nonetheless, the city has preserved much of its historical architecture, and has also invested in highlighting some key landmarks such as lighting up Narikala fortress and Baratashvili bridge at night. And most of this was quite tastefully done, so the dilapidation does indeed add a rustic charm to the streets, as clicheish as that may sound. 

One of the highlights of today happened while we were wandering the streets near Freedom Square. While I was busy taking pictures, Eric wandered into a completely run-down building, which turned out to be the home of the Tbilisi Royal Theatre. While it looked like it was next to an apartment of crack addicts, when we stepped through the entrance, it really felt like we were just magically transported back to the 1920's (Midnight Paris, anyone?). Akvar the watchman very enthusiastically insisted on a tour, and started us at the foyer, which held a piano and an ancient movie recorder. On the other side was the cafe, which held some genuinely faded B&W photos of famous troupes & actors. Sadly it was all in Georgian, so we couldn't understand very much, but I can only guess it was a list of who's who who've come through the theatre. The extremely disorienting contrast of the exterior decay vs. the interior opulence, plus the wafting period opera music in the background, made me want to really step outside and check I'm still in the right century. Turned out Akvar was quite a student of history, and he very eagerly wanted to talk about Mao, Chiang, Stalin and their pals. Apparently he was drafted into the Soviet army at 17 and served for 3 years, is a pacifist at heart, and was no fan of the Russians. He was of course also very interested in the whole Taiwan vs. China issue - ("China? Taiwan?" hand gesture - clasping together). We scratched our heads and did our best to insist on the difference between the two, with copious amounts of hand gestures & word parroting. But I think we managed to conclude with handshakes and smiles all around - one for amateur diplomacy! 

Another highlight was hitting the Obeliani baths, which is a Turkish bathhouse that Pushkin once called "the best bath he's ever had" (quoteth LP here - believe at your own peril). But there was definitely some truth to it. There's nothing that soothes the sore legs more than a nice bath at the end of the day. At 3 GEL a splash (<2 USD), it's was truly something everyone could enjoy. And indeed I think we saw variety of guys in there, the youngsters mixing w/ the senior citizens and everyone enjoyed chatting up in Georgian. After the bath we worked up quite a hunger, and stuffed ourselves with a feast of dish after dish of various meat products, and a serviceable bottle of wine with just 12GEL at this fabulous restaurant by the Mtkvar river. One can certainly get used to a life like this. 

K, time to hit the sack. 

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Movies and Books

Just finished watching Once. It's this indie movie about musicmaking, great, great music, and watches more like a documentary than a movie at times. I typically don't watch the commentary, but was compelled to watch this one afterwards. I guess despite all the jadedness about the movie industry, there is something magical about believing in your movie idea strongly enough to be willing to shoot it on a micro budget w/ some friends, which was kind of how this movie hapened. Very cool. I also got around to watching The Beat that My Heart Skipped, great movie as well. Darker than the other ones, but Dupri really gives a fantastic performance and I liked the whole nature vs. environment angle.

Also just read a book called A General Theory of Love. It's one of the more scientific book on love and relationships I've read in a while (though I do think some of the discourse on neural networks could be more rigorous). It's similar to some other books I've read before like Can Love Last and Necessary Losses, but I think more rigorous and scientific, which the engineer in me really appreciates. It basically tries to analyze why and how we love using multiple disciplines, such as neurology, evolutionary biology, as well as traditional psychoanalytic techniques. Their thesis is basically that human beings relate not only on an emotional level but also on a biological level (they refer to it as 'limbic'), and essentially what therapy does is the therapist tries to go into the patient's world without losing oneself, and synchronizes their rhythms not unlike how two people could synchronize breathing, but instead focusing on emotional patterns. By resonating on similar emotional frequencies and patterns as the patient, the therapist can help to gently guide the patient to break out of unhealthy patterns. If one accepts the book's premise of limbic connection, i.e., that by being together human beings do not only affect each other emotionally but also physiologically, then this is certainly one of the more scientifically sound explanations of psychotherapy I've come across. Interesting thoughts indeed.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Life and movies

Just finished watching two great flicks - J'taime Paris and Russian Dolls. Both movies elicited such strong emotions that I feel like I have to let some of it outpour onto this page. First, I guess since Paris is the major location for both of these movies, it really brought back a lot of past memories and emotions for me. I suppose the older you get, the more place you've been to and relationships you've been in, the more likely this will be. Still, there is something magical about Paris. For J'taime Paris, I can't help playing back my memories of what the various locations are like and what I was doing, at the same time as the characters are going through their scenes in the movies. It's kind of weird, kind of like parallel universes, at the same time it almost blurs the line between fact and fiction, movie and reality. There are the stone steps outside the Louvre's glass pyramid, where she laid her head on my knees and napped. I remember the sky was grayish-blue, with a slight breeze, and sound of running water behind us. Some tourists were nearby, but for that moment it was just us. At the same time on the screen, I see the characters from J'taime going through all the places I went to in Paris. The Montmartre where we looked over all of Paris in her splendor, the jardin de luxembourg where children play among the statues and where we held hands and looked for postcards, the cobblestone streets of a street market where the housewives buy their cheese and jamon...too many memories. And the

Both movies reminded me strongly of the places I've been to and people I've been w/. I remember meeting Matt in Prague in the summer of '05, when Russian Dolls first came out. He was one of the few (literally two or three) Americans I met on that trip, and we both loved L' Auberge Espagnol, the prequel to Russian Dolls. Despite having never met before, I really felt like we were kindred spirits (and I would meet many more in my subsequent trips - it's hard to express how special that bond is among the community of solo travelers). He's a few years older, but we've had similar struggles when it came to work, love, and life in general. Hence our strong identification w/ l'auberge espagnol. He had the chance to watch Russian Dolls while in Prague, while I missed out, and so now two years I've finally caught up. I think Russian Dolls is quite a bit messier than l'auberge espagnol. I wouldn't say the character Xavier is particularly lovable, but he's realistic. He's a bit schmoozy, womanizing, and weak-willed; but so are all of us. I think there's a little bit of him in every guy - who doesn't occasionally fantasize about landing one (or more) gorgeous woman? When we meet a great girl, we are all torn by the internal dilemma of deciding to settle on this one or continuously pursue an even "better" woman out there? It's like opening a set of Russian dolls - when do you know this one is the last one? Just so happened that Matt and I both encountered this decision at different points, and our different decisions have led us down very different paths. Now a couple years later, and looking back, I guess the only takeaway is there's no clean answer for love is there? There will always be multiple people, intersecting at different times, and no one is ever so right that it begs the obvious. Instead most of us eventually make a decision - "this is it, this is where I draw the line and 'make' her the one." Not passively accepting her as the one, but actively choosing her to be the one. Because even though you damn well know there are or may be better ones out there, this is where you learn to stop opening up Russian dolls.

And I guess marriage scenes are always touching; no matter how jaded we become, I suppose there's a part of us that always wants to believe in "till death do us apart". And yet now knowing what we know, clearly it's not realistic to expect that. So what do we expect? Is it just the best-faith effort at the time? That we will sincerely give it our best effort, even though knowing too well that we humans are too imperfect and transient to promise anything everlasting?

At any rate, highly recommend these two movies. Onto a L'Enfant and Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter tomorrow.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

totally random

finally found something that was worth writing about on facebook, saw this on somebody's wall today -

This is weird, but interesting! =)

fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too
Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.
i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs forwrad it


At first I was like, "Ugh, I can't read that." Then I tried a little bit and found that wow, I actually could, and fairly easily too! Crazy huh?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

You can run, but you can't hide

Three years...three long years. Yet I'm still not as far along as I thought I would be. Running from my past, but not quite far enough to forget it. When will it stop? When will it stop haunting me?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Wow, does anyone even still read this?

I think this is the first time I've been home in close to two months; the last time I was in the bay area was 7/12 I think, except for a brief night layover in Aug, though I don't exactly remember. Walking outside of SFO, aside from the 10-degree cooler wind, I'm not sure exactly what "home" is to me anymore. While I would like to say that "home" is wherever I am, and I'd like to think that I'm adaptable enough that I should just be able to shrug it off, it does nonetheless feel odd. I don't quite feel home - but then I'm not exactly sure what home is supposed to feel like. I'm back in my room, though the bed feels strangely alien. I look at my room, at the pile of accumulated mail, and it feels eerily familiar yet distant. I go downstairs to boil some ramen, since I really don't feel like eating out, despite being hungry from the crappy food. Maybe I'm just tired from being "out", though "out" would imply there is some "place" to be "out" of, no?

I'm sure there are plenty of people who fly around all the time like I do, who make strange, remote hotels their homes for months on end. The consultants, ibankers, PEers of the world, many of my friends actually. I'm sure many of us are strong, resilient, adaptable; we make friends where we are, learn the local scene, explore the new city, try strange food, and we can check off another city in our been-there, done-that list. I'd like to think I am too, yet the longer I spent away, each time I come back it feels a little stranger. When I decided to move back to the Bay last year, I was so excited because I thought I would be coming home; as close to a "home" as there would be for me anyways, since no where is really home. It hasn't quite felt like that. It's been great, I've reconnected w/ some friends, and the environment is definitely familiar, but it's not quite the homecoming I expected. Obviously everyone is older and we're all taking our different paths now, but it's nonetheless been more remote than expected. Of course Taipei doesn't feel like home either. It's great, I'm really getting to know it and like it better, but it doesn't feel like a place I see myself living in. I sometimes wonder how John does it, whether Beijing or Seattle feels like home to him. Perhaps having your own place helps.

And next year? I don't quite think I've mentally prepared myself to move to Beijing yet. Shanghai, yes. But BJ? That was not what I expected, though things are where they are now. I do think I'll look forward to exploring a new city, yet at the same time this wasn't what I planned. I had never envisioned going to BJ, and I guess maybe it won't be as comfortable or glamorous as Shanghai, but maybe it will be interesting. Regardless, I'm sure I'll learn a lot.


And I feel like I've gone through a mini relationship (could I call it that?) within these few weeks, at least some of the similar type of drama. The excitement of ambiguity, the highs and lows, the arguing, the inevitable reality and acceptance of reality, and the aftermath. I sometimes am not quite even sure why I like her - it feels a bit irrational. She's not exactly the type I've liked before, though there are things that really endear her to me. That said, I can't quite bring myself to do what I need to do - road to a women's heart is littered w/ the bodies of many nice and sweet guys, and I'd like to avoid becoming yet another one. I would like to just flip a switch and be that cocky, funny, aloof guy that every men's rag tells you to be, yet it feels like going against nature to me. Funny and cocky, yeah, that's not too hard. Aloof is where I find real difficulty - it's hard to stay away when I genuinely want to know how her day was or what she's feeling, or seeing a trinket that reminded me of her. Yet this desire for open myself up and to be close will be the death of me, I'm sure. I think it's human nature to value what is difficult, and I've already made it too easy. Sigh. Well, I'm sure this month long break will end things very quickly as it should.


Garry's recommended photography books came today - I'm excited. It's high time to get more serious about photography instead of posing around and shooting on probability. Time to get disciplined and stop dicking around. And to start another project too. I think the thing that's most disruptive about constant work travel is disrupting your personal time and rhythm. People always ask me whether the jetlag gets to me; actually, it doesn't bother me much anymore. I've gotten to the point where I can sleep almost anywhere, anytime. It's the social disruption that bothers me the most. The inevitable distancing from friends and lack of time to do my own thing that makes one tired of traveling. Well, I should be here for almost a month this time, hopefully I can do a thing or two on my own.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Organizational behavior 101?

I used to think studying organizational behavior and management was all bullshit. A bunch of guys sitting in the ivory tower thinking they know how to run a multinational? What a crock. But the more I work the more I realize how important organization--loosely defined as in how you organize people, structure reporting, allocate time, reward & punish behavior, etc--is. I'm still not convinced of the value of sitting in an undergrad class with 200 other people to read a 800pg textbook on organizational behavior. It just doesn't strike me as something you can learn in a classroom. Without lots and lots of work experience, you just won't understand. And even if you do, each situation is highly unique and nuanced, and once you abstracted it into a case study it just seems to lose the subtleties that make org problems difficult.

At any rate, now I am quite convinced that how you organize a group of people, has a huge effect on how productive they will be. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out a way to quickly become good at it.

Exhibit #1 -

Suppose you are the country PM for country X. you have been charged, ultimately, to win this market (let's use search market share), where you're currently getting your butt kicked. You need to convince engineering with your the overall strategy and product roadmap, deliver the products, and hopefully win lots of users. Suppose now also that your engineering office in X also opened recently, so you've now scoured the country for a bunch of top-notch engineers, all eager and excited because they want a chance to work at G.

Great, since a technology company absolutely have to hire the best damn engineers, you're off to a good start. No argument about that. But brilliant engineers don't necessarily sign up to crush some competitor or win a market. Few smart people join IBM thinking, "Gee, I'd really like to help Big Blue crush Microsoft or Sun or Oracle today." Smart, talented engineers join a company usually because they want to solve really challenging problems, enjoy the environment, want freedom and resources to pursue what excites them, and in general try to build cool shit.

Now you have a dilemma. You know (or think you know) what you have to do to win. Build product X, partner with Y, syndicate Z, improve infrastructure W, on and on. But the engineers may not at all be interested in X, Y, Z or W. Maybe your most talented UI engineer happens to
really get off on tweaking the subtleties of image search. But you just know that working on image search is useless for winning traffic right now, doesn't move the needle. What do you do? You can't force great engineers to do what they don't want to do; it'll be a disaster. At the same time, having him work on low-priority projects is just waste of talent. And maybe he's not the only one. Maybe some other senior engineers all want to work on a different skunkworks project, because they've all vested, and now only want to work on some pet projects.

So out of an office of maybe 15 engineers, you might only be able to convince half to really put their hearts into what you need to do to win. That's 50% efficiency, a terrible waste of eng talent and time. At the same time, you can't throw rank and ask the eng director to just crack that whip and get everyone in line; it might work elsewhere, but not at G. And even if it works, it would ruin the team culture and camaderie, so that option is out.

So, how do you reconcile the two? The easy answer might be, "Oh well, just find what people are interested in, and define Y projects in such a way that each person finds what they're looking for. So you can have your cake and eat it too." I think that works up to a certain extent, but it's not so easy, since it's kind of like sanding a square hold to fit a round peg. You can kind of do it, but it's not optimal. I think engineers are most motivated and productive when they find something they are really passionate and inspired about, not when you retro-fit a project to match their needs. You don't have as much of this problem at startups, since they are usually self-selective; people who don't identify w/ a startup's mission usually don't join it, unless there's a good chance of a good exit. And you can screen people out based on their stated interests. But in the case of G, where we're just trying to hire the damn smartest people we can find, it's not like we screen people based on their passions, especially in a remote office. In fact, we're known for only interviewing for ability, rather than work history or interest.

So what exactly do I do then? I need to win the market. But I also need to build a high performing, happy, and inspired eng team. How do I make the two work? I don't have a good answer for this, and I'm thinking about it every day. Comparatively, writing specs weren't all that hard...

Now I understand why good managers certainly earn their pay.