Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween in the Burbs

For Halloween this year we took our four-year-old old to the burbs for some daylight hours trick-or-treating in a neighborhood of lots of kids under 6.

My poker buddy Josh is shown at the left with his election-timely Paul Revere costume...with a beer in his hand of course. Other costumes seen:
  • Ghostbuster with a beer in his hand
  • Indiana Jones with a beer in his hand
  • Wicked Witch with a beer in her hand
  • Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell character in 'Semi Pro') with a beer in his hand
  • Ozzy Osbourne with a beer in his hand
  • George Michael with a beer in his hand
  • Joe the Plumber with a beer in his hand
The suburbs are about beer, I guess. And kids of course. (Shown below.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Urban Sketching Part 4: Uppsala, Sweden

This is Part 4 (and final) in my Urban Sketches series: Uppsala, Sweden
Part 1: Chicago Faces
Part 2: St. Petersburg, Russia
Part 3: Jyväskylä, Finland

The final leg of my 1997 trip was to travel to Uppsala University in Sweden to present this paper. First I had to get there from Finland, a journey I had left unplanned. My friend Mari advised me that I would have lots of fun taking the overnight ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm. She was right; it was great food, an interesting look at how high-roller Scandinavians take their vacations, and good opportunities for sketching.

I don't recall the circumstances of this sketch, but I'm pleased with this sketch of a nicely tailored gentleman.
I'm pleased with how I captured this smoker's relaxed posture while reading his book. I had a nice long chat with the fellow after I showed him the sketch. His name is Ingo Petry and is a composer and recording engineer.
One of my best executions, and also an example of how much detail goes into rendering hair.
At this point I am already at the conference in Uppsala, having taken a train from Stockholm, and am sketching other participants. This sketch is of Christina Anagnostopoulou of Greece. While I overshot the length of her face by quite a bit, I still like this sketch.
Daniel Levitin of the US.
Jörg Langner of (I believe) Germany.
After dinner the final night of the conference, a group of us including Girilel Baars of Sweden and Helga Gudmundsdottir of Iceland retreated to a bar, where Girilel was playing a gig that night. The writing on the sketch is Girilel's.
My final sketches occurred on the train from Uppsala to catch my flight home from Stockholm. I remember the least about these sketches except that it was a hot sunny day, and this is a guy on the train.
Man trying his best to catch a nap in the heat.
A young blonde woman.
Although a misplaced line added a few years to this young woman's age, I'm pleased with the details of the woman's outfit, and how it captures the wilting heat of that day.

I hope you enjoyed these sketches. See my sketches gallery for the rest of my drawings from this trip.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Urban Sketching Part 3: Jyväskylä, Finland

This is Part 3 in my Urban Sketches series: Jyväskylä, Finland
Part 1: Chicago Faces
Part 2: St. Petersburg, Russia
Part 4: Uppsala, Sweden

Part two of my 1997 trip, to travel to University of Jyväskylä (prounced 'gee-VASS-cya-luh') to give a presentation to the Music Department, produced a lot of sketches. The train trip on the way up there from Helsinki was full of lots of families traveling for their summer holiday and it was a gorgeous sunny day.

An unusual character wearing the t-shirt for a Finnish Football team (that's US football, not soccer).
Sketched on the train from Helsinki. Once I botched this guy's eyeglasses, this turned into a cartoon, but I still like this picture.
Another train sketch. This mother reading to her child was actually a quite young woman, but a few botched lines aged her by 15 years and put on 25 pounds. (As my friend Mari told me, "the same is true whenever we put on makeup".) Usually I sketch inconspicuously, but in this case I was pretty overt about it since it was just me and the two of them in a passenger compartment. At the end, I felt compelled to show the picture, which I preceded by an explanation that I did a poor job and I didn't really think she looked like that. But I think she didn't understand my English so I got a blank stare.
My first night in Jyväskylä I stayed in University guest housing and I was on my own, so I wandered into town. I found a bar where I made sketches of three students. This one had a confident smirk which I captured only semi-successfully.
Another student in the bar. I remember thinking he looked a lot like Mike Meyers' 'Austin Powers' which had just come out that summer in the US, but was probably unknown in Finland still.
Another student in the bar. Notice the thing under his nose; that's called a philtral dimple. But when I showed them my sketches, the one in the beret pointed at it and laughed. I guess he thought it looked like his nose was running.
The evening after my presentation, my host Petri Toiviainen inited me to his summer home. He, his son and I enjoyed a hot sauna by their lake. Although it was well into the night, it was daylight out because of their land-of-the-midnight-sun latitude. We baked to unbelievably high temperatures, swatted ourselves with twigs, and jumped into the icy lake. I also learned about the mystical nature of the sauna, and also the correct pronounciation, which is "SOW-nuh."
This was on the train back to Helsinki. This guy was kind of an Elvis/tough guy who was making himself the center of attention in the dining car. He seemed fairly harmless, although he did whip out a switchblade and started doing tricks with it. I'm pleased with the way this sketch caught his looks and self-styled coolness. His response to the picture was ambivalent, but he did ask if he could keep the picture. He declined to give an address for me to send a copy, but he signed his name himself ('suomesta' means 'from Finland').
I'm very pleased with the way I caught the hunched-over attention this woman was paying to her book, with minimal use of lines. Her name is Simi Kouri, and she was in the dining car with me and Vesa Attonen.

See my sketches gallery for the rest of my drawings from this trip.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Urban Sketching Part 2: St. Petersburg, Russia

This is Part 2 in my Urban Sketches series: St. Petersburg, Russia
Part 1: Chicago Faces
Part 3: Jyväskylä, Finland
Part 4: Uppsala, Sweden

In 1997, when I was doing research in Music Perception, I got a few papers accepted at the ESCOM conference to be held that Summer in Uppsala, Sweden. (ESCOM is the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music.) Through my contact with researcher Mari Tervaniemi I was also invited to give a talk in Finland at the University of Jyväskylä. That led to yet another opportunity, to go a bit east from Helsinki and visit St. Petersburg, Russia.

Taking a train to Russia by yourself is a pretty daunting experience. But since I thrive on foreign cultures and like using my wits to make the best of foreign situations, it was an amazing adventure. It was a pretty slow train with lots of stops, so I had lots of time on my hands to sketch lots of faces, many of whom were very different from faces one sees anywhere in the USA.

There were many businessmen on the train to St. Petersburg. I spoke at length with one of them (not this man, though). He believed that Russians would take very long to "get" capitalism...two generations minimum. That's how long it would take them to learn not to expect the government to provide them with everything.
This is one of my best likenesses. Later I talked with him and he told me he is a policeman. He and his friends got a good laugh over the pic when I showed it to them.
Here's a few sketches of a very lean, athletic looking business man with a strikingly Scandinavian face. He and his colleagues got a kick out of seeing my sketches of them.
Another sleeping businessman who enjoyed seeing this sketch later.
An accurate likeness of a woman with a very stark Scandinavian face. Made me think of the Finnish composer Jan Sibelius.
Helen, who was my guide to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, and also showed me around town. That's her handwriting, with her name both in Cyrilic and latin characters. She's right, it was a bad cartoon of her face, but it still helps recall the memory of a nice afternoon.
Young man with a very stark Scandinavian face.
Two sketches of a man from the dining car. Another unusually Scandinavian face...which reminded me of composer Richard Wagner's.
I vaguely recall that this young man was part of a tour group, perhaps as a guide, which explains his very "on" expression.

See my sketches gallery for the rest of my drawings from this trip.

CloudCamp Chicago meeting Oct 21, 2008

Last Tuesday (Oct 21, 2008) was the Cloud Computing one-night conference "CloudCamp" hosted by Tech Cocktail. My company has some really time consuming web analytics tasks that take days to run, and we're exploring using GridGain to distribute the work over several servers, so it was a good chance for me to get an acquaintance with this field.

I've included a few photos from the event, that come from the conference's Flickr photogallery.

The meeting was alright. I didn't see anyone I knew there but had reasonably enjoyable small talk with mostly non-technical people during the drinking hour.

It wasn't a conference in any traditional sense of the word. There were no scheduled topic, no scheduled speakers. They did use the format used by O'reilly's "Foo Camps". They have a grid of sessions and meeting rooms on a whiteboard. All the squares are empty. Then they ask everybody who has a topic they are interested in to write it in a square on the board. are now the moderator of that session.

I volunteered the topic "Software Engineering and Grid Computing". Eight really smart people showed up, including two physicists from Italy, two doctoral students, a guy from UBS, and a consultant from CohesiveFT, a Chicago company specializing in cloud computing.

Physics people have been doing grid computing for years, so they were levels above me. But interestingly, a lot of their problems have to do with resource sharing. There can be other research teams that also want to use the grid, and maybe they don't want the nodes installed with the same software you do, and the people with the biggest grants tend to win out.

The most interesting guy there was the consultant from CohesiveFT, Pat Kerpan. He had two pieces of memorable wisdom. (1) Rule of thumb: count on a 30% performance penalty imposed from the overhead of grid enabling your problem. (2) It's easier to bring the computing to the data than to bring the data to the computing.

He talked about the stuff their company uses for their clients called "Open Source Sun Hypervisor". This has an interface that allows you to trick out your nodes with whatever setup you want (e.g. pick and choose between java, tomcat, flavors of linux, struts, etc.) and get a multinode environment all set up in six minutes.

Several of the people spoke knowingly of "paravirtualization". Pat distinguished between problems that are "compute bound" vs. "data bound".

A few people referred to Hadoop. No one had ever heard of GridGain, but I don't think that Java development was strongly represented in that collection of people.

People have different aims in cloud computing. For a lot of people, they don't mind if a lot of virtual nodes are spread over one machine.

Virtualization was recommended as a convention even when you are doing one node per machine.

In many commercial applications, 4 virtual nodes per machine is typical.

Many people responded to my description of what we are trying to do at iCrossing with "why don't you just use Amazon's cloud computing"? To hear them describe it, Amazon gives you the flexibility to do whatever you want.

I could have attended some of the other sessions if I wanted to stay two more hours, but I split after mine. The other sessions were on pretty soft- or business-focussed topics. One guy led a session called “What color is your cloud?” There were two Microsoft people who found each other and made their own Microsoft-focussed session ("Cloud Computing in Windows 8 and SQL Server").

Urban Sketching Part 1: Chicago faces

A few days ago I started enjoying a new blog called Urban Sketchers. Urban Sketching is a name they're giving to a casual kind of amateur art emphasizing simple techniques like line drawing and water coloring, not making a big deal out of making a "finished product" or eliminating flaws, and emphasizing simple subjects found in ordinary life.

I loved this kind of art in Mollie Katzen's self-illustrated cookbooks The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. And a few years back I found another fun book featuring a similar style: The Moonlight Chronicles. Also, there's R. Crumb's sketchbooks and "Waiting for Food" books.

Cartooning was an early love of mine, and in 1997 I returned to drawing to chronicle a trip I took to Finland, Sweden and Russia. During that time, inspired by the excitement of travel, and having a lot of time on trains, planes and boats, I think I became a halfway decent Urban Sketcher.

This is the start of a series of postings featuring some of my better drawings. I'm beginning with the pictures I drew around Chicago after I returned from that trip.

Other parts in this series:
Part 2: St. Petersburg, Russia
Part 3: Jyväskylä, Finland
Part 4: Uppsala, Sweden

I sketched this woman on the Chicago red line el. I'm pretty pleased with the way I captured her bundled-up posture as she held on to her purse while trying to catch a snooze. People napping, or reading books are the best people to sketch, because they don't catch you in the act and make you feel self-conscious.
Another napper on the red line el. Generally I would start with the forehead, capture the indent of the eye socket, the nose, and the cheek of the subject. If I got that first stroke right, everything else would follow no problem. So that first moment would take incredible concentration and self-confidence, because I hated botching a sketch.
Shannon Russell, my girlfriend at the time, at Heartland Cafe. It's not the best likeness of her, although it captures her beauty.
This is Bill Yost of Parmly Hearing Institute at Loyola University Chicago, where I worked at the time. I was able to sketch Bill because he was concentrating on a seminar speaker---which I was supposed to be doing too. :-)
Yet another person snoozing on the Chicago red line el.

All of my sketches from 1997 can be found in this photo gallery.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Recruiter tips: finding software developers

Recently a friend from a company outside of Chicago asked me some advice on how they should go about hiring a java developer. I found myself offering advice on screening techniques for technical people and how not to blow it, and found myself thinking, damn, these are things that professional recruiters should hear.

Despite this economy, the market for programmers seems very hot right now. (Seller's market.) I get contacted by a lot of recruiters all the time. When I'm actually on the job market, I get more of these cold-call emails/phonecalls than I can possibly consider returning. So unfortunately I have to go on their voicemail or email as to whether they are worth my time or not. (First impression is a big deal.) Many people say things that send bad messages, like the job description doesn't make sense (they want strange mixtures of technical and business skills), or there's too much detail on company operations and history at the expense of core details (e.g., what the software development environment is like, whether it's Windows vs Linux vs Mac, what webserver they use, etc.), or they want you to complete some coding test before you even get a how-do-you-do. When recruiters get the message wrong like this, the more senior and experienced people know to stay away, and you get more junior or unqualified people who are willing to go along...and you waste a lot of time discovering that, or even make the mistake of making a bad hiring choice.

So here's my advice. Before you contact any software developer, get a complete job description. Keep the description of the nature of the company's business to no more than 1/3 of the description; the rest should all be technical specifics of the programming core responsibilities. Make sure that part is written by, or at least with the collaboration with, a person qualified to manage that person. Get coached by that person on how to describe that position over the phone. When you find a person to contact, either get them the description in their hands before the phone call, or try to send it to their email address during the phone call. On the phone, don't try to say more than you know. Don't bore the candidate with the history of your recruiting firm---trust me, all recruiting firms histories and mission sound completely identical. Don't ask the candidate to read their resume over the phone to you; do your due diligence and show them that you've digested it already. If you meet the candidate first, don't insult them by making the meeting be about nothing. The recruiters who did the best work for me never asked me to meet them first. Hope that helps!

Goodbye, Chicago Tribune!

I loved working at the Chicago Tribune! Unfortunately I felt it was better for my career to move on and take another opportunity. Here's a photo essay about my experience working there.

It's a beautiful old building with lots of history and class. Being right on Michigan Ave was fun. While all the tourists were gawking at pieces of castles and churches embedded in the walls of the Tribune building, I'd walk right in to go to work. And there were great places to go during lunch, like the nearby Viet Nam memorial on the Chicago River. I got to watch the Cubs' 2008 division-clinching game from the Tribune's box suite. I enjoyed pizza on the building's 22nd floor balcony. One early excitement was our president dumping $1 million cash in singles on the office floor to challenge us to come up with fantastic ideas. The idea was that if our idea could generate a 3:1 ROI, our idea would get funded with that $1 million. (Alas, falling revenues and changing priorities caused them to back off of that initiative.) At the elevators down to my office in Tribune Interactive, Sam Zell placed one of his personal sculptures called "Beaurocratic Shuffle", a fatcat businessman with seven legs. The offices of Tribune Interactive themselves are simply breathtaking. Formerly the location of the printing presses before they moved to the Freedom Center on Halsted street, they now are three-levels of glass meeting rooms and concrete catwalks. (I've included several historical photos of what the space looked like with the printing presses.) The actual content of the work was unlike any job I've been at before. The daily rhythm was dictated by what was happening in the news, because if a big event suddenly drew a lot of traffic to any of the Tribune websites, it could cause problems. It never got boring there, because events like the R. Kelley verdict, the Tim Russert passing, any number of hurricaines, the Sarah Palin announcement, the UAL stock panic, or spikes caused by a Barack Obama photo gallery link appearing on Digg or the Drudge Report, we'd constantly have to suspend whatever project we were working on to fix something. Also, there were interesting technical challenges created by over a dozen different newspapers sharing a common content management system which had new stories being added by the minute. Plus it was a great group of people too, of which several remain friends. So long!