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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

I Miss Emails

Every now and then I search my email for an obscure keyword or phrase that was at one time relevant to my interests — ‘AIIM’ when I worked as a records management consultant, or ‘dinner’ to look back at when we planned for such things by email. I even have chains going back 15 years where people are discussing something forwarded by someone and that resulted in a never-ending sequence of Reply-All’s.

In a way, I miss that.

These days, people send quick instant messages through one of the dozens of ‘social media’ apps that nearly everyone is assumed to be a member of. Can’t remember the contact details of that colleague from 10 years ago? Search on LinkedIn. What about that classmate in grad school? Chances are that they’re on Facebook.

On the other hand, it is almost foolhardy to assume that the person you used to email years ago is still using that same email address — their job might have changed, or they could’ve switched to that awesome new email service that has better spam detection, or perhaps they just wanted to build a new identity as ‘cool_ece_95@yahoo.com’ is just not cool anymore. Foolhardy because composing emails takes a bit of effort and time. You don’t want to waste that effort on thoughtfully writing something when you’re not even sure if it would land in the right inbox. Sending a quick, and abrupt, ‘hey’ in an instant message has no baggage.

Some of my earliest emails with family members are full of pictures, address changes, various forwards, and even videos and recipes. Almost all emails are more than a couple sentences long. They have nice salutations. On the contrary, instant messages are spread around various apps — iMessages for some, WhatsApp for others, LinkedIn for a few friends and even family, and so on.

Whereas my emails are easily searchable, finding the right message or the context it was sent in is terribly hard on almost every messaging app. Searching messages is consistently a terrible experience. It’s like the services were designed to be ephemeral and impersonal. Whereas emails are blocks of conversation, messages are just blocks of sentences punctuated by an image or two, or by a totally different context with its own punctuations.

Emails are fun to read; instant messages are just blobs of stuff.

In other words, most of my instant message conversations are a bad example of object oriented programming. The conversations are just a set of base classes, then subclassed, then extended, sometimes composited. What was supposed to be quick and convenient has turned into something unwieldy and, as a result, not worth archiving and preserving.

My old emails, though, are wonderful memories.

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Life and Personal

57 Days of Lockdown

The Netherlands entered its first ‘intelligent lockdown’ late in the afternoon on Sunday, 15th March of this year. I say first because as of this writing it’s becoming clear to me that the worst is yet to come. I am not hoping for it, but looking at everything happening — political inaction to civil protests around these lockdowns — it’s becoming clear that a lot of things are happening when they shouldn’t and at a speed that’s best described as hasty.

Intelligent lockdown for Netherlands has essentially meant life as normal. There have been about 8,000 fines handed out for violating the 1.5 meter rule or for organizing hangouts in public (or even hidden inside homes in some cases). Restaurants have been closed for the most part, some catering to takeaway and delivery customers, although, from all I have seen, it’s mostly been an exercise in survival, not profiting. Schools and ‘contact professions’ have been closed for about 2 months; the latter has been a huge point of contention as people could skip out on meals, but a haircut is worth protesting over.

Today, the contact professions were allowed to reopen their businesses. This led to people getting haircuts at midnight! Daycares also opened up although attendance wasn’t at 100%. Even then, a surprisingly large number of families were obviously waiting for them to reopen as only about 15-20% of children missed out on day 1.

So, what changed for me over these weeks? In short, not much. I did start making coffee at home. We have had a Moka Pot for a very long time and only used it a few times up until March. What used to be a daily routine of going to my favorite cafe for a couple coffees and newspaper reading has converted into a long walk with podcasts playing, followed by coffee at home. We have been going on twice-daily walks, and although V had the initial bout of daily cooking (for some sort of competition with friends online), cooking is back to normal levels.

What has changed a lot, though, has been our immense appreciation towards Amsterdam. While it was always special to us, the lack of crowds has made the city ever more wonderful. Where we would fight crowds every weekend to get to our favorite spot for banana bread (interestingly, lockdown’s favorite recipe globally has been banana bread; I guess we had it coming), these days it’s a calm and peaceful walk through the center of the city. The bakery is not crowded inside (since only takeouts are allowed) and the owners even spend minutes chatting with us. It’s all very ‘quaint’ in a way.

Cycling through the city is a lot more pleasurable now. Indeed, whereas previously my idea of a warm Saturday was to take the train to somewhere to cycle in the nature, this time around we’ve been undertaking a lot of cycling trips straight from home. I even got a brand new bicycle, for the second time in 10 years, a couple weeks ago.

It turns out that less tourism makes cities more livable.

In the long term, I am not sure what changes we’ll see, but already a lot of governments are talking about changing their approach to tourism and inviting the ‘right’ kind of tourists; those that appreciate the city and try to go beyond the obvious sights and flavors. This could potentially also mean new kinds of travel businesses that connect travelers with the locals.

One thing is for sure — we’re not going to be back to normal anytime soon, not without a magical intervention.

And that’s good. Time is exactly what we need to mindfully appreciate what we’ve given up over the years and to be thankful about getting the chance to bring it back in our lives. We’re spending more time with family, reading more, writing more, and even learning more.

Sure, life hasn’t been all rosy for a lot of people impacted by job losses or financial difficulties, but it could have been far worse. We’re quite fortunate.

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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Unpopular Opinions

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. There’s no shortage of news about what’s going well and what isn’t. Even then, every now and then, something pops up on the various news channels that makes you stop and think. One of these things is how Amazon recently fired 2 employees for speaking out against the company — and I have seen one of the Tweets that, apparently, “broke the camel’s back” — it was a proclamation that the employee was making a contribution towards the well-being of the various warehouse employees on Amazon’s roster that, allegedly, aren’t being taken care of and are being forced to work in life-threatening conditions.

This is not something that all of us are unaware of — just this week, France compelled Amazon to only deliver/process orders for essential items as investigations revealed that a lot of warehouse employees were having to break social-distancing rules for the sake of shipping bottles of wine or other luxurious items like Nintendo Switches. In what sounds like verbal retaliation, Amazon has responded with a threat that it would completely stop its operations in France.

This kind of corporate behavior has become so normal and acceptable over the last 2 decades that the unpopular opinion now is to actually take a personal stand over issues that don’t align with personal values. When governments force better citizenship, they’re maligned. When private individuals do as much as voice their opinions outside of work in their private time, they’re found guilty of violating social media rules in the workplace.

While most people don’t go beyond the short-term impact of such punitive action against upholding a person’s identity and values, the long term impact is tremendous. People, evolutionally, have an urge to spread and validate their inherent values. While financial compensation and social acceptance is a way to successful limit these urges, these feelings have a way of boiling over and causing more harm than necessary.

In this hyper-connected world where all of our communications, down to where we are moving and which web pages we’re clicking on is traceable back to us, and is ultimately consequential to our work place and social acceptance, it becomes that much important to separate our humanity from our workplace obligations. To that end, we need to go back to how we expressed our opinions in the early days of the Internet, and where what we said or expressed was countered in a non-personal, reasonable manner.

This was especially true at universities and schools. We all had a webpage or two, where we expressed our thoughts, our plans, and ultimately, journaled our life and experiences. There were no repercussions for questioning politics or expressing an unpopular opinion that went against the University administration. At most, you would be referred to an independent ombudsman (person?) whose goal was to help both the parties.

Contrast that to now — people, especially those with good jobs at multinational organizations, seldom find the time or build a place to express themselves using their true identity. There have been countless instances of those that did so not recovering from the repercussions for a very long time. In fact, the bigger the company, the higher the chances of never being accepted anywhere else, and the greater the risk.

This is not how it’s supposed to be.

The more people avoid free expression, the more they flock to echo chambers that have the ‘other person with nothing to lose’ voicing their opinions that they could only look at for re-affirmation, but have no way to refine or to dilute towards the less radical. The algorithms at work tend to make this echo chamber ever bigger, and the same companies that ‘enable’ this ‘free expression’ build internal mono-cultures that dampen real expression by their own employees.

Those that continue to operate free blogs and voicing free opinion do so under the pretense of having nothing to lose, which is often a result of opting not to work for these companies or to de-prioritize career advancement in the traditional sense. After all, shouldn’t the top executive at Amazon be, in fact, supporting their warehouse workers and thanking the blogger instead of ignoring any punitive action taken against them by the company?

There is glimmer of hope that the world after this latest pandemic would be the world that uses the forced pause to reflect upon the values that make us human. Already, governments are stepping up efforts to better calibrate compensation for the delivery and healthcare workers according to their real contribution to the society. The world could certainly do with more equity and equality.

And more than anything, we need to make space for the unpopular opinion, for more often than not, the opinion is a result of having spent time pondering over things that no one else deemed necessary, or because someone had the courage to go against the grain.

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Economy Featured Headline Life and Personal

Coronavirus Disease

It’s being said that this is the most challenging time in the history of the world since the second world war. Never before, in the lifetime of most of us, has the world collectively faced such a steep challenge that is impacting us from all sides.

This is the world after one of our worst fears — that of a global pandemic — is finally upon us.

And, boy, was the world unprepared.

The outbreak has been in the news since at least the beginning of 2020, at least, as far as my memory serves. It started with a closed phenomenon in a very specific part of China. within a couple weeks it was being classified as a global health emergency, and after weeks of news about travel bans in country after country, it was suddenly, one day, a global pandemic.

As I type this post, The Netherlands went from one lone case to more than 11,000 at last count. The health department can still not keep up with testing demands, and although it tries its best to supply daily updates, at this point the numbers mean nothing. After people largely ignored the potential of the outbreak to disrupt their lives, the government initially imposed a 3 week ‘soft’ shutdown of all cafes, restaurants, schools, and other P2P services like hair salons. Earlier this week, this was extended by another month, and things don’t look like they’ll be a whole lot different at that point. We’re in this for the long haul.

Whereas we blamed technology for creating distances between us, now we can blame a virus. There has been a lot of positives as well — people are helping each other out. Friends and families that never talked to each other, or seldom did, now invite each other for video calls, people are cooking more often at home – there’s not much to do when you can’t go out and socialize or work, there has been a sales uptick in board games, and companies are finally waking up to the fact that remote work doesn’t make anyone any less productive than being in an office (unpredictability and powerlessness does).

We have a family chat group where I very frequently share thoughts on politics as well as current affairs. My first message goes back to January 25th when I shared that there were 3 cases of infections in France. Three days later it was found in Germany. The Netherlands got its first positive case on the 27th of February. Over days and weeks, the messages gradually went from me sharing supposedly hyped up news to how we could keep each other safe and more aware about the virus’s spread. Knowledge is power.

Today, we are inundated with news and political discourse. Seek and ye shall find opinions about anything. The same is true of COVID-19, as it is now called. Up until a couple weeks ago, there were countries where this epidemic was being considered a hoax. This when thousands had already died and many were being hospitalized. You only get empathy for what you can see or experience, and this is why people did not understand the gravity of the situation. Even here in Amsterdam, people were casually watching movies, filling up cafes, and partying it up right up to the moment where everything was shut down. Only now, after 3 weeks, do you see people actively distancing themselves from others out in the public.

Every day brings some kind of dire news — ICUs falling short, healthcare staff running out of protective gear, working overtime, people losing jobs. While there have been instances of people banding together to thank the healthcare professionals, all the cheerleading can’t make up for the fact that they’re exasperated. They can’t isolate themselves, and while the rest of the privileged world could debate whether shutdowns are better or not compared to just letting people die, these professionals know that they’re up against a challenge that puts them front and center in the enemy’s crosshairs.

And yet, some countries and people have found this to be a good time to further divide others along religious or patriotic lines. The financial news is full of reports of one country strong-arming the other in exchange of humanitarian supplies, or any one leader sowing sectarian division and hence fortifying their voter base. Clearly, not everyone has risen to the challenge to leave this world better than how we found it.

So, what’s next? I don’t know. A huge part of me is optimistic that humanity would come out stronger and more cohesive after we’re done with this. People would get back to basics, care more about the planet — after all, the climate emergency is none any lesser important than this current crisis — yet, we didn’t stop polluting the planet until now. While the virus is killing the frail and the unfortunate, cities are seeing unprecedented levels of clean air and tranquil, empty city centers. Tourism has made a full-stop. The other part of me doesn’t have much faith in our collective memories. This too shall pass and we shall slowly ramp back up to our old ways — to flying to a new city for a ‘quick weekend break’, to sitting next to people and yet being distant, to not voting for policies that seek to empower everyone with wonderful health care and employment benefits.

Time will tell what’s next.

The best we could do is to stay positive and keep caring.

Categories
Life and Personal

Food Wastage at Restaurants

Dining out is no longer a privilege of the, well, privileged few. We all revel in this seemingly daily ritual of living in a modern city and working arduous day jobs. Dining out also affords is the luxury of meeting new people, catching up with older acquaintances, refreshing our brains, all without the added strain of planning and cooking a nice meal.

Restaurants also associate serving standard sized portions with quality and standards compliance. But, we’re not all the same. While I would be left unsatisfied even after chowing down on a bowl of salad with extra dressing, there are plenty others that would consider it a meal for two. It’s not easy to please everyone.

What do people do? They just leave half-eaten food in their plate. Doggy-bagging is frowned upon, especially in European cultures, and no one wants to eat leftovers the next day. Restaurants just throw away the food, even if it is seemingly untouched, as the legal ramifications of re-purposing untouched food and hence introducing sanitary grey areas is not a laughing matter.

How do you do the right thing for the planet while also not breaking any societal norms? I propose a pro-active approach — the next time you’re at a restaurant, give the portion a brief stare as it’s set on the table, and simply ask for a spare plate so that the extra bit could be taken away and back to the kitchen. You haven’t even started eating, yet, and so there should potentially be no sanitary reasons for the kitchen to refuse to oblige your request.

I do this quite a lot whenever I order coffee as I hardly ever eat the cookie served with it. All those wasted cookies add up. Food wastage is food wastage, even if it’s as simple as refined flour and sugar.

Remember, change always starts small.

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Life and Personal

New Portfolio Website

I finally managed to put together a new portfolio website to generate leads for business as well as showcase my professional and personal projects.

You can find it here — gargs.nl

I initially started with a WordPress theme, which wasn’t really that hard to setup on a new server as DigitalOcean makes it really easy to setup a VPS with the entire stack pre-configured. The only things that need to be done post-installation are setting up the private keys for remote login, disabling password-based logins, setting up the sudo-ers, and configuring LetsEncrypt. The hardest part is actually picking a theme and setting it up to your taste.

WordPress uses a database. It is PHP based. For a portfolio website which doesn’t really change that often, I figured that setting up a server with a database was really overkill. You also get an elegant editor, but it is not going to be used often. Finally, PHP has quite the learning curve.

It is then that I started looking at static site generators, and Hugo in particular. The first step is running a terminal command to setup a new website that creates the directory structure, followed by (usually) cloning the repository for a theme that you want to use. You also get the flexibility to use multiple themes for any particular site. The best part is that being templated, your website grows gradually in the form of git commits. This also gives you the flexibility to tweak the theme by just forking it. The theme I picked is quite simple, yet elegant for a portfolio website.

I also got into a bit of designing while building the website. The demo website using the theme used a lot of SVGs, and I decided to use some of my own. Turns out that SVGs are great for websites. They are vector-based which means that they look amazing on Retina displays. I wonder why websites just don’t use them for everything that isn’t a photo.

Uploading the website to the server is also just a matter of using scp or rsync, depending on how big your website is. There are even entire hosted workflows to automate this part — you push a new commit that triggers a new build of the website that triggers a new sync. It really can’t get any better than this!

Give my website a look and send me any feedback!

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Life and Personal

15 years of Web Domain

Yesterday marked 15 years since I purchased my first ever Internet domain — a 5 character .com domain — gargs.com that is smaller than some company domains, and the same length as apple.com. So lucky!

There’s another upside to this – my email address has been a gargs.com address ever since. I never had to add zeros or special characters to differentiate my common name with those of other people. It is easy to remember, makes my emails look classy, and I never have to worry about a service closing shop. If my hosting provider shuts down, I just point the MX records over to a new provider’s server. I even have SPF and DMARC configured on the domain.

I am slowly migrating away from free services in consideration of matters of privacy and long-term retention. Here’s to more personal domains on the Internet! 🍻

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Featured Life and Personal Travel

On Change

A lot of people and companies make change the centerpiece of their existence.

‘We want to change the world’

‘I want to change the way I talk’

‘Be the change you want to see in the world’

‘We need to change in order to be successful’

Someone once said that the only constant in life is change. It’s part of the journey, and not the destination, for there is always something that needs to be changed. If you hit the point where everything is perfect, there’s no reason to exist. Imagine the global catastrophe that a state of perfection would bring!

Change isn’t easy; change requires effort. Well, unless you’re changing for the worse. Arguably, picking up on drugs and alcohol isn’t as hard and strenuous as perhaps learning to be an effective public speaker. The fortunate thing is that humans generally love a bout of some healthy challenge. No one plays a game of chess because it’s an easy way to kill some time.

I was talking to someone (an entrepreneur) the other day, and they cheekily pointed out that they are in the game to change the business. Upon asking what exactly they meant by change, they had no idea of what exactly.

So much of your professional existence depends upon bringing out change in people and processes that it’s essentially how you’re evaluated. You don’t need to look very far at how prescient, yet, simple that conclusion gets.

What if we took change out of the equation? What if we took it out of our vernacular? To change is to be alive. You grow, you learn, you adapt, you make a difference. That’s called — having fun.

Learning to drive is fun, it’s also a change. So is cycling in the countryside with just 2 bottles of water and a camera. It’s even more fun when you get a flat tire and end up having the best pancake of your life in the middle of the jungle.

What if we renamed ‘change’ to ‘having fun’?! Your life would become so much more dynamic, and well, fun.

Let today be the day you start having fun.

Categories
Life and Personal Tech and Culture

There are two kinds of people…

… those that make a Facebook post about leaving the platform, and those that just do.

The need to announce your departure makes you the perfect Facebook user, and hence a very easy target for rehabilitation targeting.

Is it my validation that you’re seeking for? You have it!

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Life and Personal

My Daily Morning Highlight

I have increasingly and gradually become a creature of habit; from my morning walk route to what I have after dinner (a cup of green tea), things have become very routine and sort of monotonous. There is something to be said about not having to spend a lot of time in taking decisions as mundane as what to eat or where to go for a walk when the answer is right there in your (hopefully good) habits!

One such highlight of my morning walk is the old-age/retirement home that I pass around the corner towards the end of the street I live on. It is a ‘high-class’ home for people that can afford to live in this neighborhood. It has to be – meals are catered, every room seems to have custom-placed and distinct furnishings, as well as the presence of onsite medical facilities.

Now, I pass through the building twice – before and after I turn around the other corner of the neighborhood. On the first pass I often run into this old lady smoking a cigarette while on her upper-ground floor balcony. She occasionally ascertains if the grocery store would be open while puffing on her cigarette. One time I even brought her a pack of cigarettes to save her the trouble of walking to the grocery store. I think it was unexpected for her as a result of a miscommunication (I learn my Dutch language by talking to strangers) as she never paid me back for it.

On my second pass, I walk in front of the brasserie as well as the main entrance. At the entrance, there are often a bunch of old people and/or employees enjoying their cigarettes (the Dutch love their cigarettes), and so I get a chance to wish them a good morning. Inside the brasserie, at the same table towards the very end of it, I,  almost daily, see an old guy reading his newspaper, presumably having just finished his late breakfast. We even wave to each other.

I have this experience almost every morning, except the weekends, when we take a different route for our pre-coffee walk.

One of these days I’d probably get a chance to go in and talk to the people in person.