It is rather unusual to find snow falling from the skies of Seattle, but the last three days have indeed been rather unusual. Not only has it snowed, but it has done so with vigor. Our friends in the weather department forecast a snowstorm on Friday afternoon, continuing all the way until late evening on Saturday, and the weather gods did not disappoint. This morning, I cleared up the ice and snow on the sidewalk outside our home, but when it resumed snowing again later in the afternoon, I realized my celebration might have been premature.
The nice thing about snow though, is how it lights up even a moonless night. Oh, and it also means offices are going to be pretty much empty tomorrow, as people decide it best to work from home.
John Carreyrou‘s Bad Blood outlines the story of fraud and deception at Theranos, the Silicon Valley company claiming to revolutionize the medical industry with its blood-testing technology. Theranos, as Carreyrou meticulously explains, was a grand vision wrapped up in a web of blatant lies and oppressive management. The company continued to deceive its investors and partners for over a decade, with the help of top lawyers, powerful connections and a highly effective sales pitch driven by its founder and CEOElizabeth Holmes. Holmes and her boyfriend / COORamesh “Sunny” Balwani created an organization where physics could not be allowed to get in the way of what they desired, and the only executives permitted to thrive were sycophants that agreed to play along with their charade.
Carreyrou’s tale, despite being the work of an investigative journalist, feels like an insider’s account. His numerous interviews with courageous former employees were undoubtedly responsible for the story’s personal touch. Today, both Holmes and Balwani are being investigated by Federal authorities and Theranos is defunct. But Carreyrou’s book reads like a nail-biting suspense – or would have, if we hadn’t already known the ending.
Bad Blood leaves us with several questions to chew on. How could our society be so broken that a fraudulent company with little substance could be permitted to thrive – reaching a net worth of $9 billion – without anyone raising alarm bells? Perhaps this simply goes to show that many, if not most of us, are susceptible to groupthink, willing to take manufactured points of view for granted as long as others are willing to stand by them – a troubling idea. Even more troubling is the role of the lawyers in the fiasco – the reality is that the law is not on the side of truth and justice, but on the side of whoever has the most money.
Sign at a popular Seattle bookstore that sells used books:
I look up books online because I want to know how well-reviewed they are, and how much I should be paying for them. I want to know what others think of them, and if I should look out for something better. Searching is easier online, and so is browsing content and recommendations.
When you’ve lived in a place for over a decade, it starts to seem familiar. In reality, you may have only walked upon a hundredth of its parts, but you could still look upon the Quamiequitch freeway exit and think of it as an old friend – never mind that you’ve never taken it. Familiarity is superficial, but sometimes you discover things in familiar places that reminds you of how fragile your knowledge really is.
Last night, as we were walking down Pine Street towards the market, I noticed the large neon sign visible from a few blocks away and I asked – don’t we usually see this sign from the adjacent Pike Street? After some debate, we confirmed a mind-blowing hypothesis – there are, in fact, two different signs in the area; all these years I had assumed there was just one.
Here they are – Pike Street on the left, Pine Street on the right:
On the seventh day of our vacation in Japan, Anu and I finally managed to figure out the direct route from Shimbashi Station to where we were staying, Park Hotel Tokyo. This route was as simple as riding up an escalator and taking a short walkway upon exiting the station, but for the first six days, our tradition was to follow this three step process: (1) look for the Shiodome exit from the subway, (2) get lost within the indoor shopping area, and (3) use trial and error to eventually discover a new route to the hotel.
The problem is that each rail station in Japan has a complex subway system with multiple exits, making it difficult to acquire any sense of direction. And if that weren’t confusing enough, there are at least three different buildings that have names that sound like ‘Shiodome’, all connected to each other – the Shiodome Media Tower (where we were staying), the Shiodome Sio-Site, and the Shiodome City Center. On most days, we would meander into the City Center, stumble our way to the Sio-Site, and eventually spot something familiar that led to our hotel.
But I am jumping ahead of myself. Our trip to Japan was designed to be a semi-planned vacation, which meant that we had booked our flights and hotel stay ahead of time, but that was all – we had no clue what we were going to do once we were in Japan. Anu had been to Japan once previously, so she played the role of skilled guide – an assertion that she rejects vehemently because “planning is a shared responsibility” – and lined up some ideas once our vacation began in earnest.
On a side note, getting a Japanese visa was a relatively painless process. Indian citizens are asked to get visas for pretty much every country that is not India, so we’ve had a fair bit of experience getting visas to travel. In this case, there was a Japanese consulate in Seattle downtown that we could walk up to with no appointment, drop off a short application form, and get an immediate answer from the officer on whether the visa would be issued and when to pick it up. The part that stood out to me the most was that you don’t need to pay a fee until and unless the visa is issued. Most other countries require an upfront payment merely to consider your request, sometimes an exorbitant amount.
Hiking Up Mount Fuji 富士山
We had plans to hike up Mount Fuji on Wednesday evening, but that was before we visited a nice bar called Ben Fidditch in Shinjuku on Tuesday evening where the bartender warned us of a typhoon expected the next day. So on Wednesday, we scrapped our plans and rode the Tōkaidō Shinkansen 東海道新幹線 – the “bullet” train – to Kyōto instead.
But on Thursday, when we finally got out of bed in the afternoon, it seemed the typhoon had passed and it was an optimal day to climb Mount Fuji, so off we went! The idea was to start climbing in the late evening, reach the top by around midnight, sit around at the summit until dawn to watch the sunrise and then head back down in the morning. So we took at bus leaving from Shibuya Mark City just past 6pm, and landed at Fujisan Station a few minutes past 8pm. It had turned dark by then.
It was the wrong station.
It turns out we needed to get to Mount Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, about 31km away – this wasn’t it. In hindsight, we should probably have looked at the bus tickets a tad more carefully or noted the ticket-issuing clerk’s slight tone of surprise when we asked for ‘Fuji’. Anyway, here we were, and it was too late to catch another bus (the ticket counter was closed), so our only options were to either stay the night at the station or take a taxi to the trailhead. We opted for the latter, and it was almost 9:15pm by the time we began our climb.
The Yoshida Trail was dark, and we trudged along up the path with a small flashlight. Fortunately, as we went higher and the climb got slower, the trail became fairly congested with other hikers, which gave us some comfort and silent company. There are ‘stations’ along the way – we started at the 5th station, and passed through the 6th, 7th, 8th (old and new), 8.5 (I think they did this just to have a quick laugh at the expense of the poor souls struggling to haul themselves up) to reach the summit. There are also additional stops every 200-400 meters where you may purchase water (¥500 for a small bottle as you go higher!) and snacks, which made the climb a fairly entertaining exercise. At 2:15am – around 5 hours later – we reached the summit with a literal sigh of relief, and huddled up to wait for the sunrise, expected at 5am assuming no changes to the schedule.
This is what sunrise looked like:
That was sunrise seen from Haleakalā National Park. All sunrises look fairly alike, but here’s what sunrise from Mount Fuji actually looked like:
And here’s yet another beautiful view a few moments later:And another:And here’s irrefutable proof that we were up on the summit:With that, we headed back to the base. The downward trail was a different one from the trail up, less steep but much longer. I clocked our speed at about 2 minutes and 50 seconds per 100 meters. We took a bus straight back to Tōkyō, and reached our hotel at 1pm, showered, ate some lunch and dropped into bed exhausted.
To Kyōto 京都 (and Back)
Japan is a strange mixture of culture, history and advanced technology. The written language embodies this mixture in a way, consisting of three types of letters: Hiragana (phonetic symbols used for words, and parts of words), Katakana (phonetic symbols used for foreign words and sounds) and Kanji (Chinese logographic characters used for word-stems and conveying meaning). Note that all three types are used together in the same words and sentences. Oh, you can also throw in some Rōmaji (Roman characters) if you like. Sentences can be written vertically (top-to-bottom, usually – but not always – scrolling right-to-left) or horizontally (left-to-right, scrolling top-to-bottom), based on the writer’s preference, although vertical text is more formal and respectful. Newspapers use a mixture of horizontal and vertical text on the same page to utilize space efficiently.
Cash is still king in Japan, and many places refuse to accept credit cards, which meant that we were forced to convert our United States dollars to Japanese yen and make sure we had enough to cover purchases. On Wednesday, given that our Mount Fuji plan seemed effectively cancelled at the time, we decided to head to Kyōto instead, taking the Tōkaidō Shinkansen on the Nozomi line, a fancy rail service with trains that go really fast.
So here’s how all of this works. Listen up –
You top up your Suica card (a pre-paid stored value card you can use for paying the train fare), touch in at the Shimbashi Station entry gates, then take the Yamanote Line to get to Tōkyō Station. There, you can use the ticket-vending machine to buy a fare ticket for the Tōkaido Shinkansen, but you need to make a fare adjustment using your Suica card (you never tapped out of the Tōkyō station, remember?) as you do so.
The fare ticket isn’t enough. You also need to get a separate ‘express’ ticket for taking this train, which is inexplicably provided by a different ticket-vending machine. Now you can enter the platform by inserting two tickets sequentially at the gate.
In our case, we managed to pay for the fare ticket using Anu’s debit card, but when we got to the express ticket, her card could not be authorized for some reason. Plus, the machine didn’t seem smart enough to realize that my credit card didn’t need a PIN to operate. Luckily, we had just exchanged some dollars for yen earlier at the station, so we used up most of the cash we had to get our tickets one-way (which are expensive!). Anyway, we were glad to finally get onto the train and be on our way. The inside of the train looked…pretty much like a normal train. Like this –
We found some good seats, settled in and relaxed just enough to get us thinking – since we had used up all of our remaining cash and our cards wouldn’t work, how the heck were we going to get back? And this thought left us in silent but stern contemplation. The scenery sped past us at 300km/hr.
When we reached Kyōto two and a half hours later, we immediately made our way to a 7-11 in the hopes of withdrawing some cash from our account with Bank of America. A quick Google search had yielded the fact that ATMs at 7-11s and Post Offices tend to work with international banks, and that there was a 7-11 located close to the station. Fortunately, we got even luckier – we found an ATM at the station itself that worked for us, and we could withdraw enough to breathe a sigh of relief. We could go forth and enjoy ourselves in Kyōto without fear of being stuck there forever.
Kyōto is a beautiful city, with a ton of temples and other peaceful spots to visit. In many ways, I enjoyed Kyōto a lot more than Tōkyō – it seemed a lot more traditional, peaceful and quite distant from Tōkyō’s entertainment frenzy.
We took a long walk through the city that day, visiting several spots along the way, browsing shops (even buying a couple of keychains as souvenirs), and having ice cream or cool drinks to keep the heat away.
And boy, was it hot. Every place we went to in Japan turned out to be hot and humid, except Tōkyō for the short duration when it rained – remember the typhoon? Clear skies dominated, and since I like taking pictures of clouds, here is one of clouds seen from Kyōto –
It was late at night on Wednesday that we finally got back to our hotel in Tōkyō. On the way, we dropped off our souvenir keychains in the trash can at the station, and…wait a second – that wasn’t supposed to happen! But it did, and sadly that was the end of our souvenirs. On the bright side, we don’t care too much for souvenirs anyway.
Days later, on Saturday, the day after our hike to the summit of Mount Fuji (our muscles still aching from exhaustion), we did a little bit of cafe-hopping to find a nice spot to sit and work from. Not work per se, but I wanted to capture some of our memories into this blog post, which is a much better souvenir than a keychain, if you ask me. If you are looking for a place to open up your laptop and sit for hours, FabCafe is an excellent place to hang out, plus they serve coffee. And when it is time for dinner, there is a Thai place a few hundred meters away called Thai Food Pub Conrow, serving good food and spirits.
Entertainment is like a drug for the modern Japanese: large audio-video screens located in high-density public areas throw loud commercials at you, the gaming equivalent of cyber cafés exist everywhere, and lots of stores sell toys of various kinds. Nothing fascinating or interesting, mind you – just stuff that might interest you for a few minutes until you find something better to do. This is especially true of Akihabara Electric Town. I never could understand this craze, but perhaps it is just that my tastes are simple. For instance, when Anu ended up dunking her contact lenses in ear drops instead of contact lens solution on Sunday morning, I found the episode to be incredibly entertaining (“Why is this so viscous?“, she shrieked in alarm, having packed and used the wrong bottle…).
The clock has turned past midnight, and it is once again Sunday now. Our trip to Japan is coming to an end, and we need to head to the airport later today. I will say sayonara さようなら – which is a solemn ‘farewell’ in Japanese.
Of course, if you are interested in learning about the 16 other ways of saying goodbye, here’s a handy guide, summarized below:
Inertia is an evil, and momentum is the antidote. As the saying goes, you tend to regret not the things you did, but the things you didn’t do. Inertia is that feeling of lethargy that stops you from doing what you need in favor of doing what you want. What you want tends towards the comfortable and familiar, anything that maintains status quo.
Inertia is death by a thousand cuts. When you postpone the hard stuff, you miss an opportunity to make progress on your goals. And it is more than that – each bit of progress you could have made would have had a compounding effect: when you understand part of a problem, you automatically start working it out in your head while doing other things; you talk to other people about it; you connect the dots when you see related patterns.
The key to fighting inertia is building momentum. Any kind of momentum, in fact. Just pick a thing that you want to do regularly – that you are willing and able to make time for – and do it religiously. The only catch is that this thing should give you a feeling of accomplishment at the end of the hour. For instance, I picked blogging as something I always look forward to doing.  You could pick a sport that you enjoy, if you like.
Once you have picked your thing, keep doing it. Then pick other important things on your list and start doing them alongside your thing (immediately before or after). For instance, reading Probabilistic Graphical Models right after writing a blog post.
 Another thing I look forward to doing is installing Gentoo, but let’s not go there….
I had better write this down quickly lest I forget. It begins with the fact that I had a dream last night. When I woke up, I had a realization: if you think of the brain as a computer, while I am dreaming my computational part is still behaving “normally”, but my memory access is all messed up.
In my dream, for some reason, I am going to get a lift from a person A – don’t remember why – perhaps in a fancy car. When the person shows up, I realize that it is in fact an old acquaintance of mine with the same name A. It is, in fact, a common name, so I am pleasantly surprised learning of the co-incidence. He arrives in a fancy car, as promised, and I get in. We start chatting, and I ask if he is still in Seattle, or has moved to San Francisco. [Dreams don’t have conversations per se, so all of this was mostly a silent exercise in memory recall, despite the fact that I imagined I was talking to him. Either way, he didn’t respond to me (how rude!).] But after a few seconds, I recall quite clearly that he had, in fact, moved to San Francisco a few years ago. [You get that ‘Aha!’ feeling when clarity hits you.]
I am reading a book on measuring things (anything, in fact) that wisely suggests that one should start with what they know, rather than not seek out measurement because of all the things they don’t. In my unscientific analysis, it feels like my brain is taking the things I know (the memory bits), shuffling them around, and then feeding them to the processing unit to see what happens. Because why not? As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating!”