Elliott C. Back: Internet & Technology

My 2011 New Years Resolutions

Posted in Holiday by Elliott Back on January 2nd, 2011.

I’m not much of a person for resolutions, since far too often New Years’ promises go unheard, and unkept. Making a list of New Years’ resolutions falls firmly into a cognitive bias known as “optimism bias“, as too often people set unattainable goals. On the other side of the equation, there’s evidence that setting goals publicly can help their completion.

The following goals are my own, completely personal, and probably unsuited to most of you. We are each unique individuals with varying strengths and weaknesses; in 2011, I want to shore up some areas which I think I fall short in.

#1 – Complete a 5km Run in 25m

I have in mind the JP Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge, which I’ve participated in twice before, with times around the 32 to 35 minute mark. I’m young, and in good shape. I just went to the gym and ran 2 miles at 9 minutes each. This isn’t a great time; I would need to be running 8 minute miles before I could achieve this, and run an extra mile. Fortunately, I have until this summer to get ready!

#2 – Finish My Website Redesign

This blog theme is getting tired. it’s too thin in a world of wide-screen monitors. It could be much more heavily optimized. And, it’s not readable with its small text. My wife has been prodding me to redesign it, and there’s no excuse for letting it go any farther. I plan to employ some new technologies on the front-end, perhaps using A/B testing, CSS sprites, and other optimizations. On the backend, there’s room to use Varnish and other acceleration technologies. And upgrading to the latest version of WordPress should let me host all my subdomains from a single installation, freeing me up from symlink-hell and too many open file handles.

(I also want to try improving my Twitter Weather and Nikon Lenses pages, but those fall more into the category of tinkering rather than full-scale work, so I’m not including them in 2011 resolutions. Resolutions are for getting things done you should already have done or be doing.

#3 – Travel / Photography

Take my camera out more. Take more photographs, read some photography books. Master the use of the digital SLR that I have, and the lenses that I have already bought. Learn to use my flash, properly meter exposure, and focus. I may need to invest in some small equipment (like a proper flash, long telephoto zoom), but what I have already (Nikon D90, 18-105mm/3.5-5.6 VR, 50mm/1.8, 60mm/2.8D, Tokina 11-16mm/2.8, and 8/16GB flash cards) is more than enough kit for an amateur like myself.

In my opinion, travel is one of the best uses of time and money. In 2011, I want to ski, visit a Caribbean island, Spain, and Japan. My motivations for the three are (a) it’s very cold in NYC right now and I want to escape, (b) Spain has tons of historical architecture, museums, and cultural value, and I can practice my Spanish, and (c) Japan, the high-tech capital of the world, will tickle my love of gadgetry and cutting-edge fashion. New places are new opportunities to learn about other cultures, to practice language skills, and to take photographs!

#4 – Play guitar

I have an Epiphone Les Paul and a nice Fender practice literally gathering dust. I used to find playing guitar very enjoyable, and in fact, a mood stabilizer of sorts, but recently (say for the last two years) I have not played a lick. In 2011, I should clear off the dust, restring and retune, and pick it back up again.

These four simple New Years’ resolutions are mine, and I hope that they are achieved in part, or in full, in 2011. What do you want to change in your life in the new year? Leave a comment below!

Americans: “If I can’t have it, neither can you.”

Posted in Holiday,Jobs,Law by Elliott Back on December 15th, 2010.

I was reading the news today and came across this article, US sues school over denial of Muslim pilgrimage, which details an interesting case of law:

The federal government sued a suburban Chicago school district Monday for denying a Muslim middle school teacher unpaid leave to make a pilgrimage to Mecca that is a central part of her religion. […]

Khan wanted to perform the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia which every adult Muslim is supposed to make at least once in a lifetime if they are physically and financially able to. Millions go each year. […]

Berkeley School District compelled Khan to choose between her job and her religious beliefs, the lawsuit said.

Interesting stuff. As an employer, I believe that you should make every possible effort to strike reasonable work-life balance for your employees. Unpaid time away to get married, look after family, and fulfilling religious obligations are all the sorts of things that you would reasonably expect accommodation for. In more civilized countries, you would be accorded sufficient paid holidays to do much of this. Unfortunately, in the United States, by law, there is no requirement to offer any holidays at all!

Ignoring the religious and racial overtones in this news article, what I found interesting was the comments thread. Check these high-rated gems out:

  • “they want, want, want but don’t want to give. Special treatment! Whatever happened to the (former) American work ethic?”
  • “Contract, obey the rules and live with them or dont sign up”
  • “Whoever hired her should be fired.”
  • “This is a sham on the american way of life”
  • “Seperation of Church and State. Take a Religous Holiday when everyone else does.”
  • ” She signed a contract, then did not like it. Tough. Think I like paying my credit cards? No, but I have a contractual relationship to pay .”
  • “What a bunch of bull. This should not even go to court. She should be denied time off for this. Try this at a real job and they will tell you “no”! Here is why, if you want the time off then use your vacation time. That is what it is for. Your employer is not obligated to give you any more time off then what you have accrued.”

It’s an interesting fact that Americans have the least paid vacation days in the world (0 by law), some of the most mediocre students in the world, the largest wealth-gap between the rich and poor, etc. Yet when confronted by an individual who is trying to improve the American standard of living (by advocating for improved time-off rules), American internet commenters essentially say, “I don’t have this right; why should you?”

I don’t understand this.

Do you want America to suck? You should be cheering this woman and the ALCU on, because they are fighting for your rights. (If you feel like commenting that I’m an elitist foreigner who should shut up and work harder, please don’t even bother to leave a comment.)

Update: It’s nice to see Netflix lets its staff take as much holiday as they want, whenever they want – and it works come out today.

Wall-E Pumpkin Carving

Posted in Holiday by Elliott Back on October 24th, 2010.

I decided to carve the Wall-E robot into a pumpkin this Halloween! Here’s how it turned out:

wall e 01

wall e 02

What did you carve this year?

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