A little of Andy lives on in me

In 1978, it was rare ever to encounter a computer, much less someone who had one at home. The “personal computer revolution” was only about a year old, with Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack all introducing their first consumer models in 1977.

Of the people who did have computers at home, surely only a small fraction were so generous with them as to allow their sons’ twelve-year-old friends to spend afterschool hour after hour, day after day, month after month sitting at them, tapping in and trying out dumb little programs; and an even smaller fraction were also seasoned programming experts with the desire, ability, and patience to impart some of that expertise to receptive but very green ears.

This weekend I, one of those twelve-year-old friends in 1978, mourn the passing of Andy Kane, one of those generous and patient computer owners. Andy was one of the many reasons I was lucky to befriend his son Chuck in the seventh grade. He was a living example of the ability to make a career out of writing software and he contributed significantly to nurturing the then-embryonic skills that today support me and my family. My condolences to his; I will always be grateful.

You can’t go home again, unless you are just in the nick of time

1999: Andrea and I (finally) get married at Sunset Point, a beautiful circle of palm trees atop a grassy knoll overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon and, in the distance, the Magic Kingdom, at the Polynesian Resort in Walt Disney World.

The years that follow: we start a family, hoping always to return to that magical spot.

2013: We (finally) return to WDW and Sunset Point, this time with the fruits of our union.

A few months later (as I learned just this morning via a Google Follow Your World update), Sunset Point looked like this:

Gone forever, to make way for the construction of new villas over the lagoon, and as part of a general revamp of the resort, probably in anticipation of Disney’s upcoming Polynesian-themed film Moana.

Walt Disney himself endorsed the continual reimagining of his parks, and no doubt the Polynesian will be as magical after these changes as it was before. But that circle of palm trees was my one favorite place in the entire world. Goodbye Sunset Point! Thank heavens we made it back to you just in time.

Fatal attraction flaw

When I was young, I was smart, and I knew it. And when I thought about how I would attract women, it was always going to be with my big brain. Some of my peers sported fashionable clothing. Some could dance. Some were athletic. Some played musical instruments. Some could make small talk. I disdained them all as beneath me. I attended to basic grooming and hygiene, of course, but gave little further thought to my appearance. If a woman couldn’t appreciate me for my wit and my wisdom, it was her loss, not mine.

These were actual conscious thoughts I remember having. (In fact I was rationalizing what was, at root, simple laziness.) At the very same time I was having them, whose pictures did I have on my bedroom wall? Supermodels. Christie Brinkley. Paulina Porizkova. Cindy Crawford. Which classmates did I have crushes on? The prettiest ones, the same ones all the other boys liked.

This hypocritical disparity never struck me, I’m chagrined to admit, until just a few years ago, around the time I started thinking about advising my sons on how to attract women, when the time comes. Happily they’ve got a nice head start compared to where I was at their age. They’re athletic and musical. They’re starting to show some fashion sense. Crucially, they’re smart, smarter than I was: smart enough to understand that smarts aren’t everything.

Performance anxiety

In 1998, when The X-Files was at the height of its popularity, I read an interview in Entertainment Weekly given by its star, David Duchovny. Talking about the fans who revered him as his character “Fox Mulder,” he took pains to point out:

It’s pretty workaday, people don’t seem to realize: You get up, you take a shower, you read the paper, you play Mulder.

I understand the impulse to demystify one’s profession, really. It’s embarrassing to be venerated by awestruck laymen. Modesty compels the likes of Duchovny and me to draw back the curtain and expose the workings of the machine — to prove that anyone could do what we do, it’s simply a matter of electing to.

Even though I have the impulse to demonstrate that to others, it turns out I don’t actually believe it myself. Not when it comes to acting, anyway. I find good acting to be mystifying, and actors themselves intimidating, be they never so humble.

There was a time when I thought I wanted to be an actor. In high school my new classmate Cynthia was one. She appeared in Afterschool Specials on TV, and in the 1980 movie Little Darlings (among much else later on). Although I wouldn’t have admitted it then, I was awestruck. I cluelessly pestered her for her agent’s name and contact info, so I could send a head shot and be discovered. When a talent scout visited our school once, hunting for someone to be the lead in My Bodyguard, I managed to insert myself in the interview schedule, and was peeved when they showed more interest in my best friend Chuck than in me.

Years later I realized it wasn’t acting I wanted to do. I simply wanted others to be as impressed with me as I was with Cynthia. I was jealous of my own feelings about her!

I should have known that my supposed desire to act was misguided when my close friend Andrew began showing signs of being a talented actor himself. Although I was his performing cohort on a few memorable occasions — we co-founded our school’s repertory group together with a few other friends and had a popular comedy act on the side — none of what I was doing was real acting (it was reading lines and playing for laughs), whereas when Andrew performed, he disappeared into his role, and it pretty well freaked me out. When he became a country bumpkin, or a Victorian gentleman, or a brash uncle, or an elderly Jew, it seemed to me there was no trace left of my friend. When we hung out together he would sometimes switch personalities and become someone I didn’t know how to relate to, exhibiting behaviors and emotions I knew weren’t Andrew’s. I was exactly as uncomfortable around him at such times as if a total stranger began emoting at me. In college I had another friend, Amy, a drama major, who had the same unsettling ability to abandon her usual demeanor on a whim and adopt an alternate one, fully realized.

I’ve often wondered why I’m so disconcerted by the abilities of actors. I think it must have to do with the fact that emotions are the raw materials of their craft. When I was young I was never especially comfortable with emotions, mine or others’. I was raised on 60’s cool; I identified with Mr. Spock. I suspect that for much of my youth I would have denied having very many emotions at all (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), and would have considered that laudable. I became a computer programmer, and not without reason. Computers can be instructed with precision and always respond predictably — exactly the opposite experience of dealing with people and their emotions.

From time to time my emotions would get the better of me. An unrequited crush could send me into a tailspin for weeks. Feelings were to be feared and kept under control. But actors! Actors are so at ease in the world of feelings that they put theirs on display. They change them on demand, and make sport with them! Confronted with such mastery of such dangerous stuff, I felt like the caveman who peers into a rival cave and is terrified to discover fearless tribesmen putting food into fire and then eating it!

Of course I’ve enjoyed good acting all my life; it’s only when the actor is known to me, and the alchemical transformation happens before my eyes, that I’m flustered. It’s less true today than in the past. I’m older now and, like Old Spock, have come to grips a little better with my own emotional life. But I’m still mistrustful of feelings, which control me more than I control them, so my inclination still is to keep them submerged. I therefore continue to be mystified and impressed and, yes, a little frightened by those who are not only able but willing to surface their feelings, to shape them and amplify them to create performances — that can, in turn, affect my own.

End of term report

Tomorrow is my 47th birthday, which means today is the final day of my year-long weight-loss plan. Qualitatively it was a success! I look and feel better (and I sleep better at night). Most of my pants are now too loose. I can do pull-ups, which I previously could not, and I’m the lightest I’ve been in over seven years.

Quantitatively, though, I get a C-minus. I only made it 72% of the way toward my goal. I’m 9.6% lighter than I was one year ago; I was aiming for 13.4%. (On the other hand, if you measure from my heaviest point, which was less than one year ago, to my lightest point, which was a few days ago, I lost 10.8% of my body weight.)

As you can see from the graph, after an exciting fast start, losing weight was a stop-and-go proposition.

At Google, teams are encouraged to set measurable goals at the beginning of each quarter, and then to measure them at the end of each quarter. Scores of 100% are great, of course, but we’re taught that the ideal average score is actually around 70%. More than that and your goals aren’t ambitious enough. So maybe I should feel satisfied with my 72% (but I don’t).

My bathroom scale also measures body composition. According to that scale, my body-fat percentage went from “very high” to merely “high,” and my visceral fat number went from “high” to “normal.” My muscle-to-fat ratio climbed from 1.02 to 1.38. Gratifyingly, my “body age,” according to the scale, dropped from 56 to my actual age: 47.

My goal for the coming year is to lose another 10.2% of my weight. If I’m successful, my body-fat percentage will drop from “high” to “normal.” I’d also like to see my scale claim that my “body age” is lower than my actual age. Wish me luck…

Practice makes perfect

Here’s something my kids have that I never did at their age: a belief in the value of practice for getting better at things.

When I was young, a number of things came easily to me. In particular, I excelled in school and earned a lot of praise with very little effort. Nice as that was, there was a downside: I had little patience for things I wasn’t naturally good at, like sports or dancing or playing piano. Even though I longed to be able to play music, and even though I made a few sincere starts at trying to learn, when I perceived the gulf between my ability and where I wanted to be I gave it up.

Of course I’ve always understood intellectually that training is how people get good at things, but I was well into adulthood before the reality of that fact managed to sink in — just in time to have a job, a dog, a wife, a house, two kids, and no free time to myself for practicing things. Just think of all the things I could be good at today if I had believed at a young age that it was possible to be!

Happily my kids don’t have that handicap. They’ve seen for themselves — with piano, parkour, martial arts, soccer, fencing, and more (not to mention reading, writing, and arithmetic) — that real progress comes with practice. The secret to teaching this lesson was to recognize even slight interest by the kids in a variety of activities, and once recognized, to compel their participation in those activities until they were over the “I can’t do it” hump. After that, quitting for other reasons was OK, like genuine loss of interest, or prioritizing another activity. But again and again it happened that slight interest turned into strong interest once the “I can do it” confidence began to flow.

The Brick Prison Playhouse

It’s the thirtieth anniversary of The Brick Prison Playhouse.

Alumni of Hunter College High School always seem compelled to mention that it’s where they attended the seventh through twelfth grades, when others would simply say “where I went to high school.”

It’s understandable. First there’s the confusing name of the place: it’s neither a college nor merely a high school. Second, when you’re in the habit of telling stories from high school, and some of them take place in 1978 and some take place in 1984, unless you’re diligent about the seventh-through-twelfth disclaimer sooner or later someone is going to do the mental arithmetic and wonder.

As a junior, late in 1982, a few friends and I felt the urge to write and perform a collection of short one-act plays. With faculty help we ended up founding The Brick Prison Playhouse (so called because the school’s appearance earned it the affectionate nickname “the brick prison”), a repertory group for performing student-written plays, as opposed to the existing repertory groups that performed established plays and musicals.

Our first performances took place on February 10th and 11th, 1983. They were a success and a lot of fun. After the last performance the entire playhouse group trekked through Central Park in a light snowfall to the Upper West Side apartment of our friend Michael, where we had a memorable cast party — and ended up snowed in. The only reason I know the exact dates is because it was the great New York Blizzard of 1983.

The next morning, I had to make it back to Queens, but transit had been only partially restored throughout the city. Exiting Michael’s building I was amazed to discover that Broadway was navigable only via a shoulder-high snow trench, just wide enough for two pedestrians to squeeze past each other. Through this narrow channel I worked my way downtown to where working buses and subways could be found — with my also-Queens-bound friend Steve in tow, on crutches with a broken ankle!

(Steve was the best writer in our group. The most talented actor among us was Andrew. I’m pleased to report that today Steve is a professional writer and Andrew a professional actor.)

On the radio program Fresh Air the other day, I heard an interview with the journalist Chris Hayes. In it, he mentions that he grew up in New York City, attended a school from the seventh through the twelfth grades, and performed in a student-written play in the eighth grade. From this I concluded (correctly) that Hayes is a Hunter alumnus, and that The Brick Prison Playhouse still exists!

It occurs to me this is the second blog post in a row where I lay claim to an unacknowledged legacy. Well, acknowledged or not, this one’s an agreeable legacy to have, and the Brick Prison Playhouse’s near-mention on Terry Gross’s widely heard radio show is a nice little brush with fame on this, its thirtieth anniversary.

Coffee optimization

Doctoring the coffee after brewing added a good twenty or thirty seconds to the total coffee preparation time, a substantial increase over the time needed by the machine. But the machine’s user waits idly for seventy-four seconds; why not put that time to better use?

When I started at YouTube a few years ago I encountered fancy coffee machines in the break rooms (or in Google parlance, “minikitchens”). At the touch of a button it would dispense a single serving’s worth of coffee beans from a hopper into its internal grinder, grind them up, add water from a supply line, and brew and serve a cup of hot coffee, all in seventy-four seconds. (I timed it.)

Occasionally a line would form of coffee addicts needing their fix. Most had the same routine: when one brew cycle was finished, the next person in line would place his or her cup in the machine and press the button. Seventy-four seconds later they’d withdraw their cup, add sugar, carry it over to the cooler, take out the half-and-half, and add that; then leave.

Doctoring the coffee after brewing added a good twenty or thirty seconds to the total coffee preparation time, a substantial increase over the time needed by the machine per se. But the machine’s user waits idly for seventy-four seconds; why not put that time to better use? After several months it dawned on me to change my routine. As soon as the previous user’s cycle ended, I pressed the start button without putting a cup in the machine. Instead, during the first thirty or so seconds of grind-and-brew time, I put sugar and half-and-half into my empty coffee cup, then placed it in the machine. By the time the machine was finished, I was all ready to go, about 25% faster than everyone else.

In hindsight it was an obvious optimization to make, and in an office full of bright, busy engineers I was surprised that I was the only one I had ever observed making it. I did occasionally get some appreciative glances from others on seeing my technique in action, and finally within the past year I’ve noticed my method catching on. It’s gratifying to be a trendsetter, but frustrating to be unacknowledged. At least I can tell you about it.

The arrow that springs from the bow

In 1996, some friends and I started our own software company, Zanshin. But by 1999, suffering from a lack of focus and a tendency toward overengineering, we had still not managed to produce a salable version of our world-changing software. Luckily for us we got a consulting gig for Amazon.com (unrelated to my involvement with the Internet Movie Database). That contract went so well that after a few months of it, in early 2000, Amazon offered to hire us all. We would have to close Zanshin and move up to Seattle. Andrea and I, newly married, got as far as scoping out Seattle neighborhoods. We were leaning toward accepting Amazon’s offer. Zanshin clearly was going nowhere, and Amazon had interesting work for us.

We had a Zanshin company meeting to talk it over. Some of us wanted to accept, some wanted to keep trying with Zanshin. We had the frank discussion about our plans and lack of progress that we should have been having all along. In the process, we brainstormed some exciting new ideas. In the days that followed we fleshed those out. The uninspired daily grind that working at Zanshin had become took on a new feeling of hopefulness. My co-worker Steve, who had also been in favor of the Amazon offer, gave a stirring speech about continuing on our own.

When it came time to give Amazon our final decision, we voted unanimously to turn them down. Knowing I’d previously been the strongest vote in favor of the Amazon offer, my co-worker Greg asked if I was sure. I replied, “I’m like the arrow that springs from the bow. No hesitation.”

It was a line spoken by Michael O’Hare as Jeffrey Sinclair in Babylon 5. I have used that sentiment a few times since then as a way to gauge my readiness for something — starting a family, for instance. If I can’t say that line with conviction I know I’m kidding myself.

Today came news that Michael O’Hare died. Nerds all over the web are paying him tribute for his role in a beloved space adventure, but his legacy is a little more personally meaningful to me. His memorable reading of that one line has attended every important decision of my life since he spoke it.

Quickie sex ed

It was the spring of 1979 and seventh grade was almost over. Time was running short for our Health Ed. class to cover sex education, as had been promised earlier in the semester. We’d all been anticipating it in giggly fashion for months.

Now just a couple of classes remained before the end of the school year. At that time and place I’m not aware of any political controversy about sex education in public schools; as far as I know the semester simply got away from Mr. Washington, our young and hip teacher. In one of the final classes he apologized and suggested a way to cover the eagerly awaited topic quickly: we’d all write down one or two anonymous questions about sex, drop them in a hat (or a bag or a box, I don’t quite remember), and Mr. Washington would pick some at random and answer them. No question was out of bounds, nothing was too big or small to ask. Mr. Washington pledged a complete and honest answer to every question, all but promising to kill the fun with an excess of earnestness.

I can’t remember what question I dropped into the hat, nor do I remember most of the other questions that eventually came out of it. Some were no doubt excellent ones based on real curiosity. Information about sex was not quite as easy to come by then as it is now. After all, this was before the frankness made necessary by AIDS, before Dr. Drew and even Dr. Ruth, back in the days when “Internet porn” consisted of an academic in some university office printing a topless woman made of typographical symbols on six sheets of green-and-white fanfold paper.

The hat (or bag or box) passed solemnly around the room. Each of us dropped a folded piece of paper into it, apprehensive in spite of the anonymity that some humiliating bit of cluelessness would be revealed to all. Mr. Washington received it back and, just as solemnly, fished around for the first slip of paper to answer.

He unfolded it — and cracked up laughing, bent over double! It took several long seconds for him to regain his composure; meanwhile, the tension was broken for the rest of us. Finally he read the question: “What’s it like?”

I can still hear Mr. Washington’s immortal and carefully enunciated answer, after our own laughter died down: “It is as good as they say it is.”