Imagining financial planning (2008-08-06)

Sample Retirement
Another life I imagine might be some sort of a financial planner. Clearly I like to play with numbers, and review personal finance books (e.g., illustrating compound interest and the cost of current gratification, or explaining stocks and bonds). While I'd like further education, I already have some competence with finance, following this advice:
  • Simplify by donating or selling unneeded items.
  • Maintain a used car as long as possible (e.g., by minimizing driving).
  • Have no debt--in fact, through budgeting save an emergency fund for one year's expenses.
  • Save and research for major purchases (including SIFF and travel).
  • Pay bills online automatically.
  • Almost always pay the full balance on credit cards selected for their features.
  • Regularly review three free credit reports.
  • Contribute to an (Roth or traditional) IRA.
  • Use savings to defer income in order to start a business.
  • Research and purchase auto, dental, disability, liability, life, medical, renter's, and vision insurance, combining when possible.
  • Have an estate plan.
  • Set up a 401(k) and fully fund it.
  • Periodically review asset allocation.
  • Have written goals and milestones for net worth and retirement.
While I'm not (yet) a millionaire, I would be interested in coaching others in Seattle, particularly those starting out in technical fields.

[Corrected wording.]


Imagining travel writing (2008-08-02)

Inside Cathedral in Germany
Although it is probably more efficient to make needed money with another interest and take time to travel, I sometimes wonder what life would be like as a freelance travel writer and photographer. It's fun to imagine other lives.

I would continue my quest to visit every continent (except Antarctica), and then visit various regions within each continent. Without worrying about other income, I would also travel more slowly, writing each day--rather than recording only a small portion of the trip afterwards (like China, Paris, Hawai`i, east Africa, or the perimeter of the USA) or not at all (like Germany, Los Cabos, Banff National Park, or Honduras). That way I would finish my recollections before my next trip began! (For example, I don't remember which cathedral in Germany I was in when I took this natural light photograph.)

[Edited link.]


Hiking Boulder River (2008-07-26)

Boulder River Falls (Upper Part)
For me, July 2008 has included three short hikes a short drive from Seattle:
A couple of these let me spend part of a day in the forest--one of my goals for this year. Only on the most recent hike did I remember my camera. I'm enjoying the exercise.


Building SF ATIS (2003-06-07/2004-03-24)

Golden Gate Bridge Suspension
Sending the final invoice this month for maintenance of the real-time Advanced Traveler Information System (ATIS) Web site for the San Francisco Bay area has me reflecting on my company's past projects to discern what I would like to do next. I liked managing a team to build the site using repeatable processes. I contributed by implementing the site's driving times calculations in SQL and VBScript, writing an SQL test suite, and configuring Big Brother monitoring. Often I reviewed code and design documentation. In fact, some days I mostly made decisions. The result was an accessible and easy-to-use map and text system capable of delivering a million page views per day via (BIG-IP) load-balancing two three-server stacks.

I'm proud of our ability to rapidly reach this result within a fixed fee and schedule. Our team took less time to revise the requirements and build the site than the previous company had taken to produce the requirements--and did so in the remaining budget!


Seeing Forbidden City (2008-05-14)

Halls and LionsWalking around in the summer warmth of the famous Forbidden City, taking photographs of the red buildings, I feel the elation of a first meeting with someone beautiful. Forbidden City is a fling, however, as I doubt I could live in Běijīng knowing that the sky is not misty but smoggy.

There are surprisingly few people in Forbidden City in the early morning as we work our way south to Tiān'ānmén Square. The crowds arrive later and travel north. We hear Spanish in the gift shop and chat with a traveler from Spain.

After Forbidden City, Tiān'ānmén Square, and a disappointing lunch, jet lag lures us into a nap before a Peking Roast Duck dinner at Quanjude. A friend of a friend who is in Běijīng working for Microsoft meets us. The duck there is delicious.

[Added more links.]

Arriving in Běijīng (2008-05-13)

May 12 we were in the United States of America, and May 13 we were in the People's Republic of China for three weeks of vacation (with no visa trouble). Two airplanes and a taxi brought us to Běijīng, to Xiyuan Villa. On the way the language around us changed from English to Japanese (changing planes in Tokyo) to Mandarin.

Běijīng smells burnt. That's my first impression as I sit in the speeding taxi. It's an official Běijīng taxi, from the taxi stand rather than the salesman inside, but still it has no seat belts. The impression of burning stays with me for a week. The back of my throat and my eyes burn. A business associate later says he smokes only in Běijīng. Since he's going to inhale smoke anyway, he says, it might as well taste good. He also doubts the seat belts would save me from anything.

[Added explanatory links.]


Leaving Feistel (2008-05-12)

Feistel at Teri's HouseWe once again left our cat with a friend while traveling, this time for three weeks instead of two months.


Walking around Seattle (2008-04-22/05-10)

After 226 days of walking entered in Walker Tracker, on April 21 the Omron Health Management Software, while receiving data (using a USB cable from the pedometer to the PC), began reporting "The data transfer failed." I hoped it would eventually download--perhaps after the offending day's data had left the device's memory--but now my Omron HJ-720ITC pedometer has begun showing days with zero steps. Like others who have posted elsewhere, I am "disappointed" at the device failure. "For me the selling point was the USB connection," wrote one reviewer (see Google cache). I'll switch pedometers to resume tracking.

Getting immunized downtown (2008-05-06)

Tarangire River
While I was entering Tarangire National Park (March 14, 2000), a tsetse fly bit the back of my hand. Fearing further bites, when I reached the porch of my ridge tent I took off my shirt to spray it with Permethrin--and a tsetse fly bit my back.

Later that day I developed diarrhea and a moderate fever. As my temperature rose I worried I would become delirious and no one would discover my condition. This was one of three times in Africa that I wished I had a traveling companion.

My fever stopped rising and finally dropped, I got some rest, and my driver checked with me the next morning. The following day I was well and resumed my safari, taking photographs of elephants and afternoon storms.

This illustrates part of my philosophy of travel. I take whatever precautions are possible, accept that traveling has risks, and then forget my worries and focus on enjoying the experience.

Some precautions are medications and vaccinations for vaccine-preventable diseases. Last year I wrote about anti-malarial medication, mosquito avoidance, and a red colobus monkey. Vaccinations include routine vaccinations like MMR, polio, and Tdap, as well as vaccinations like hepatitis (A and B), rabies, and typhoid.

When I went to Africa, I was watching wild animals, so I received rabies vaccinations. For our trip to China, there wasn't time for the series, and we anticipated less time outdoors. For similar reasons we didn't get the Japanese encephalitis vaccinations. In addition, there are shortages of both of those vaccines. We'll avoid malaria-risk areas of China as well. We did go to King County Downtown Public Health Center Travel Clinic to update routine vaccinations and get hepatitis and typhoid vaccinations. Finally, Ryan is spraying our clothing with Permethrin. At least this time I'm not traveling alone.


Buying Northwest Tickets (2008-04-30)

At the end of April I bought us tickets to China using Expedia Travel. We depart Seattle May 12, arriving in Tokyo on May 13 and proceeding on to Běijīng. We depart Hong Kong June 2 for Seattle (via Tokyo again). We're excited to again venture abroad to somewhere new. It's been nearly two years since we purchased our last international flights to Paris. I hope they honor our visas because I'm looking forward to learning Mandarin and seeing tourist sights (e.g., palaces and temples)!


Getting Visas (2008-03-13)

Tourist Visa to China
Learning Mandarin leaves me interested in traveling the PRC. We filled out the "Visa Application Form of the People’s Republic of China", listing as destinations Běijīng, Jǐnán, Shànghǎi, Hángzhōu, Xiàmén, Guǎngzhōu, Shēnzhèn, Hong Kong, and Aòmén (Macau).

On March 7 I relinquished two passports and US$300 cash to Holiday China China in Seattle. A week or so later I retrieved the passports with 12-month multiple-entry tourist (L) visas valid for 60 days each entry.

On March 27, according to the South China Morning Post (via a thread in Asia - North-East Asia Thorn Tree Travel Forum), the PRC stopped issuing multiple-entry visas, restricting travelers to single- or double-entry visas valid for 30 days. This is especially inconvenient for business travelers, one of whom started a blog. A business associate with an apartment in Běijīng wrote, "First time in 15 years I have worried about China immigration." Yesterday the PRC said the restrictions on visas are part of its Olympic security measures. I'm glad we applied early, though I'm slightly worried about third-hand rumors of multiple entry Chinese visas being canceled at the border.


Listening to Mandarin (2008-01-05/04-20)

Today I am intrigued by juxtaposition of contrasts in spoken (and written) Chinese:
  • to ask, "Is it?" say shì bú shì (是不是), putting "is" next to "isn't";
  • to refer to "thing," say dōng xi (东西), putting "east" next to "west";
  • to ask, "How many?" say duō shao (多少), putting "many" next to "few"; and
  • to refer to "size", say dà xiǎo(大小), putting "big" next to "small."
Though not in this blog's goal list, "Chat in Mandarin" is my 2008 non-work mental challenge. I listen daily on my 30 GB iPod to Instant Immersion Mandarin Chinese or Pimsleur Chinese (Mandarin) I, usually while doing 30 minutes of moderate activity. I chose Mandarin because Asia would be new to me and because there are perhaps 1.05 billion speakers. It's the language with the most native speakers (followed by Spanish and English, which I already speak)--an order of magnitude more speakers than other Chinese languages like Cantonese.

I've written about mental self-improvement several times. Recent research into neuroplasticity suggests thinking, learning, and acting actually change the brain. One of the activities Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential consequently encourages is memorization. Since Mandarin is not in the Indo-European language family like Spanish and English, it poses a memorization challenge for me (though thankfully not due to noun declensions or verb conjugations).

An additional memorization challenge is learning Chinese characters or hàn zì (汉字). In fact, some recommend against learning characters at first; others think writing is the main reason Chinese is so hard. (In contrast, to me the four tones don't sound hard so far.) I am studying an average of one simplified character and compound per day from Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters Volume 1: A Revolutionary New Way To Learn And Remember The 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters.

For flashcards I enter hàn zì into Zhongwen Development Tool (zdt),a program discussed in Chinese forums that has a plug-in to search the CEDICT Chinese-English dictionary. I also downloaded a Pimsleur word list for zdt. The zdt stores hàn zì, pīnyīn romanization, and English definition. Other information (e.g., Learning Chinese Characters visual imagery), I enter into Mnemosyne.

Instant Immersion Mandarin Chinese came with Talk Now! Plus software from Eurotalk Interactive. However, both of the SourceForge programs (zdt and Mnemosyne), like the Pimsleur language learning system, use spaced repetition techniques (an idea I first encountered in Tony Buzan's Use Both Sides of Your Brain). Mnemosyne uses an early version of (and simpler interface to) the SuperMemo algorithm discussed in this month's Wired.

This juxtaposition of modern research and tools with an ancient language and writing may help my memory, but it also provides direction for travel. True immersion may be available in the People's Republic of China, where the official language is Standard Mandarin and the government uses simplified characters.


Reading Agile Software Development with Scrum (2007-12-17/2008-01-01)

"Scrum is built on an empirical process control model which is radically different from the defined model that most processes and methodologies use."
--Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle, Agile Software Development with Scrum

This past month I attended a Seattle XP Users Group meeting, read Agile Software Development with Scrum (one of two books that are primary sources of information about Scrum), and toured SolutionsIQ (a Seattle-area Scrum training and consulting firm). I wanted to see how my company's experience with small teams compares with our colleagues' in the industry. We'd been using agile development methodologies and tools since before starting the company, due to reading Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change, Planning Extreme Programming, and similar books by Kent Beck and Martin Fowler.

Readers of this blog may recognize in agile development methodologies the management paradigms I profess. My management methods led my company to agile development methodologies like Scrum and Extreme Programming. My blog posts on management books provide the following principles:
  1. Update opinions from observations. ("The Map is Not the Territory.")
  2. Develop a culture of interdependence. ("Mature from Dependence to Independence to Interdependence," and "People are smarter than you think. Give them a chance to prove themselves.")
  3. Prioritize what's important. ("Good is the Enemy of Best.")
  4. Jointly determine the course. (See The 8th Habit.)
  5. Set up and manage systems to stay on course. (See The 8th Habit.)
  6. Focus talents on results, not methods, then get out of people's way and give help as requested. (See The 8th Habit.)
  7. "Never automate something that can be eliminated, and never delegate something that can be automated or streamlined."
The principles above aren't articulated in industry terms, however. Specifically in software development these principles lead to the following practices:
  1. Inspect results and update process.
  2. Rely on people.
  3. Work on highest priorities.
  4. Teach self-managing teams.
  5. Improve processes.
  6. Remove impediments.
  7. Automate testing.
These practices are agile:
  1. Agile Software Development with Scrum emphasizes empirical process control.
  2. Agile methods have a people-first orientation.
  3. Product backlog and sprint backlog are prioritized.
  4. Scrum uses self-managing teams.
  5. Extreme Programming suggests various process improvements like spike solutions, coding standards, continuous integration.
  6. A Scrum Master uses a daily stand-up meeting to learn impediments to remove them.
  7. Extreme Programming emphasizes automated unit (and acceptance) tests.
I would list examples from our experience (e.g., engineering estimation, comparison to CMM Level 2 and key process areas, serving manufacturing clients, consensus decision-making) but this blog post is already long. However, I'll write that I'm pleased with how agile practice embodies good paradigms and principles.

[Updated FAQ link.]