Iceland Trip

August 03, 2014

Last month, I had a 11-day trip to Iceland, and spent most of it taking a road trip around the country. A few unprocessed pictures taken by my phone don’t quite capture how amazing my experience was. This slideshow is my attempt at sharing some of it nevertheless.

Reykjavík from above. Colourful rooftops seems to be a distinctive feature of Icelandic buildings.
Þingvellir, where North American and Eurasian plates visibly part, and where the first Icelandic parliament was formed in 930.
Geysir. Geysers are named after this, but it's currently dormant.
Strokkur, Geysir's little sister that squirts boiling water up to 20-30 meters every few minutes. Tourists are solemnly awaiting the next squirt, while the gusting wind makes a creepy noise.
Gullfoss; the gold waterfall. Majestic, isn't it?
Dried fish [bones] to be sold to the developing countries.
The wind on the Southern side of Iceland was exceptionally fast, as you can see. It was categorized as class 7, where class 10 is a full-blown hurricane.
A remote shot from Eyjafjallajökull, whose eruption cancelled many European flights in 2010.
A black sand beach.
Dyrhólaey. I was hoping to see some puffins on the cliff, but they were all gone.
One of interesting tourist attractions seems to be created by tourists. I'm guessing hitch-hiking hippies.
This comfortable bed took a river of lava to flow on the field, centuries for it to cool down, and decades for the moss to grow on them.
An Icelandic turf church. The turf provided great insulation when the technology hadn't caught up with the harsh climate.
A glacier hike on one of many "tongues" of Vatnajökull glacier; Europe's largest glacier. The occasional thunder-like sound was an indicator of the glacier moving 5-50 cm every day.
Drifting ice bits on the shore.
A lagoon formed by the melting glacier. The icebergs are usually very huge, and what you see is literally the tip of the iceberg.
Hiking at Hvannagil. The loose, flat rocks make it fun to descend gliding.
The valley was full of cascading falls.
Seyðisfjörður. A beautiful city on the East Fjords, protected by avalanche obstacles.
A remote view of Seyðisfjörður, with the all-too-common farm sheep on the loose. The winding road to the city was featured in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty".
Dettifoss, view from the East side.
A pond at Ásbyrgi, a horseshoe-shaped depression. Sigur Rós performed one of their free concerts in this area.
Honeycomb rock formation.
kirkja or church. A cave formed by honeycomb-shaped lava rocks.
A mud pit with boiling water. The yellow colour around the pit is caused by sulphur sediments.
Getting a kick out of hydrogen sulfide, a gas smelling like something between rotten eggs and flatulence.
Mývatn nature baths. The naturally-hot torquise water coming from a geothermal power plant makes for a relaxing swim at around midnight.
A dormant volcano crater.
A natural hot water bath in a rift. An earthquake decades ago strangely made the water too hot for bathing.
Mývatn lake, a definite attraction to bird watchers and biodiversity researchers.
Can't get enough of waterfalls!
Interesting rock formation, and yes, a waterfall in the background!
A view from Akureyri, the capital of North Iceland. It lies on the shores of Eyjafjörður, the largest fjord in Iceland.
A church.
Inside the Harpa concert hall.
Sunset in Reykjavík just before midnight.
An example of failed legislation: Iceland's laggard lift of prohibition in 1989 was followed by banning all advertisement or bar signs mentioning any "strong" beer. Businesses conveniently advertise their "light" beer as a result.

Slideshow plugin by Pixedelic.

If you liked this, you may also like my Chilkoot Trail post.

Toastmasters for Engineers

May 21, 2014

About a year ago this time, I joined a Toastmasters club, and today, I had my 9th prepared speech out of the 10 you need for your first title (i.e. Competent Communicator). Toastmasters is a huge network of self-organizing clubs that help members improve their communication and leadership skills.

I realize that different Toastmasters clubs could have slightly different rules and different cultures, so your mileage may vary. However, the cult-like general guidelines of this huge non-profit organization ensure your experience will not be that club-specific.

If you’re the quintessential engineer with limited communication and soft skills like myself, I’d recommend giving it a shot. Each club has a specific schedule for its meetings, and each meeting may contain a few prepared speeches, impromptu talks, evaluations, and other supporting summaries (e.g. grammar usage summary). Almost every role in each meeting will get an evaluation at the end. There are one-off contests once in a while too.

Every club member will be working on two tracks in parallel; communication and leadership. I personally put more focus on my communication track, which at the beginner’s level, consists of presenting 10 prepared speeches for the audience. Each speech has specific objectives, and as you progress, they become more advanced. For instance, they start from merely not using notes to watching for your body language and vocal variety.

The leadership track was never very attractive to me. The tasks in that track are obviously designed to help organize the club without any control from Toastmasters itself. Most of the administration is done by volunteers, and the contribution is gamified by awarding leadership badges and honours to those who donate their time. Even though it might have some educational value in leadership, I don’t think you can get anything more out of it than you do at your work.

Even though Toastmasters seems to be mostly about public speaking, it teaches engineers valuable lessons in soft skills. It helps with your speaking and, to some extent, writing skills. However, the two invaluable skills are coming from the general audience and the evaluation parts. The general audience makes you pick subjects that anyone can understand and is intereted in, and the limited speech time (around 5-7 minutes) forces you to make it concise. It also teaches you how to be tactful and diplomatic in your evaluations, and still get your points across. They specifically encourage using the “[shit] sandwich technique”, where you enclose the rough parts of your feedback with pleasant fluff.

As usual, the time and effort spent on Toastmasters has diminishing returns. I feel like the optimal point of retiring for me would be after the first communication manual, but of course, your experience may be different. It’s taken about one hour of my time every week, and a couple of hours for each speech. The membership fee is very little compared to your time and its value. You can always attend their meetings as a guest and decide for yourself if it’s your cup of tea.

Competitive Strategy Online Course

April 11, 2014

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a revolutionary way to bring education to the masses, and make the collective human knowledge accessible. You might have heard of Coursera, which is a great for-profit MOOC provider, whose courses have been offered for free so far. They charge for certain certificate courses, but if you just like to listen to video lectures or read the notes, it’s only for the price of your time.

I’ve been taking courses from Coursera for a while. The level of engagement is up to you. You can be as involved as a real student actually taking the course, attend study groups on the side, take the exams, and submit the assignments and project. You can also just skim the scripts, and (just like me) watch the video lectures as a passive way of consuming information. They have a broad catalog of courses from top universities around the world, so you’ll definitely find something that interests you.

A few days ago, I came across Competitive Strategy on Coursera. Tobias Kretschmer from a top German university is the instructor of this course, and judging by the first module of the course (out of six), he knows how to keep the audience interested and entertained. The course tries to use a few game-theoretic tools to analyze different strategies businesses can use to their advantage. As someone with a general interest in microeconomics or marketing, I quickly fell in love with it.

The first module introduced a few basic concepts from game theory, so if you already know about them, it may sound a bit boring. However, I’m looking forward to the upcoming modules to see how those abstract tools are employed in business strategy and marketing. If it piqued your interest, feel free to join; it’s free and open to new students at any time.

Is Adblocking Unethical?

April 05, 2014

I came across an admittedly biased interview on CNET, where an executive VP of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (an online advertising industry advocacy group) was resorting to vitriolic ranting and name-calling against adblockers. It showed how adblockers are leaving a dent in their industry. It didn’t however argue why affecting their bottomline is unethical, and merely used the straw man of the collapse of the internet if the disruption continues.

I am personally an adblock user. That’s one of the first things I do when I set up a new machine; install Adblock and Ghostery. I usually whitelist the community-generated content providers that I frequent, and know won’t survive without the ads. It just feels right; just like when I tip my waiters as I know they’ll have difficulty without tips in the status quo. Am I robbing other websites of the attention to the ads they feel entitled to? Is it ethical?

We can look at this dilemma from two different angles; whether or not users are stealing money from the individual websites, and if adblocking is good for the internet as a whole. I disagree that refusing to look at adverts equals stealing. Embedding ads next to the actual content implies that by consuming the content, you are helping the provider make profit. Let me use an analogy.

The hat next to a street musician has a very similar implication; please pay if you enjoyed. You never feel obligated to spare change to anyone though (you might be guilt-tripped into it, but never forced). Some people like to help out the talented ones, and simply make them happy since the performance made them happy, but most don’t. If someone forced you to pay up during a street performance, blocked your view, or disrupted your experience otherwise, wouldn’t you be annoyed and just walk away? I skip talking about the creepy trackers.

The obligation to pay for publicly available art or entertainment has never been easy to formulate. It’s usually more about the consumers’ willing to pay than the providers’ enforcement. Sometimes, the publishers have had the technological means to force-fed ads to consumers in a very aggresive way (e.g. cable TV adverts), but it’s now the consumers that have the technological capability to strip the content of intrusive ads and trackers. If producers can’t earn enough money through intrusive advertising, they should find another way to monetize their content or spend their time and effort on something more lucrative. Sorry; the landscape is shifting and so should your business model.

Isn’t it bad though? Doesn’t it make the pie smaller for everyone? Maybe. CNET’s interview didn’t provide much relevant data, and it’s outside the scope of this blog to quantitatively analyze the market anyway. What I can predict is that if the advertising industry doesn’t find ways to make ads less intrusive and more interesting, and doesn’t dissuade people from actively blocking them, they will have a hard time. They may get into an arms race with adblockers, but that’s never a good idea for them. They may regulate or even criminalize adblocking (see piracy laws), but the current economy is not stable and is certainly going to change.

When advertising is not a viable business model any more, site owners may start putting their content behind paywalls, or come up with smarter monetization strategies. It means that the publicly available content may have lower quality, or websites will simply go out of business. You need to be either a hobbyist or a large corporation to be sustainable in the new economic balance. We may need to pay for good content like good old days of newspapers, or struggle to find them among too much noise. It’s going to be uncomfortable to go back there, but without appropriate planing of the industry, it seems inevitable.

There have been proposals like this to find a middle ground for acceptable advertising. The demise of the ads-for-content economy can be prevented if producers and consumers can come up with and agree on standards of what will be tolerated. Until that day, I believe the consumers’ revolt against online advertising is only a reaction to the their creepy, aggressive, and intrusive methods, and certainly not unethical. I’m afraid democratization of content creation and consumption might force businesses to actually listen to the consumers after all!

Packt, MongoDB, and Pentaho

April 01, 2014

Last year, when I received an email asking me to review a book about MongoDB and Pentaho for free, I barely opened the email before marking it as spam; “an outsourcing shop looking for desperate freelance editors? No, thanks!” I’d never heard of Packt Publishing before, and they were asking me to donate my time for a commercial project!

I’d used MongoDB in Pentaho before, and knew it was a “NoSQL” implant to the relational database world of Pentaho. It piqued my interest however; I wanted to see how someone can write a whole book about a relationship that was still in its infancy, and (at least back when I used it) hardly had any real utility beside the basic operations. I was also curious about the process of writing, editing, and publishing an ebook, so I just bit the bullet; “I’m in!”

Overall, I probably spent 15 to 20 hours to read the 100 something pages of the book, and didn’t get to communicate directly with the author. I only exchanged emails with the coordinators in India. The book was surprisingly well written, and it covered every possible aspect of using MongoDB in Pentaho. At the end, I received a physical copy of the book as a token of appreciation, and was able to download one of their ebooks for free. It wasn’t all for nothing after all!

If you’re interested in the subject, and are immune to people’s advice against using MongoDB, I’d recommend having a look at the book (obviously without any monetary benefit to me). Otherwise, there are a lot of books and tutorials about the great open-source BI suite that is Pentaho, and many other choices of reliable NoSQL databases other than MongoDB. ElasticSearch seems to be an emergent contender in that space.