What's been on my mind lately? Read on...


We’re back from weddings number 4 and 5 of the year, having had a great time in Spain and Italy at two remarkable and remarkably different events. Lots more photos to follow; for now, this:

posted August 31, 2014 – 8:09 pm

I finally had a chance to post some photos from our trip to Taiwan earlier this year. You may recall that we were in Taiwan just over a year ago, and had a wonderful trip then. Our friends there got engaged in the intervening time, and we were happy to take another trip over for the wedding. (As a side note, this is the first of eight weddings we’re invited to this year, four of which are international! Yikes!)

I went a few days before Dina for some bachelor party fun — a deep-sea fishing trip off the coast of Taiwan to a tiny little island in the Penghu Archipelago.

Dave, Abe and Brian

Back in Taipei after the wedding, Dina and I had a chance to see some dragon boat races on the river, and of course we ate tons of dumplings.

Dragon Boat Race Panorama

We also had a great time visiting our favorite hot springs resort in Beitou, which left us relaxed and happy:

Post-hot springs

The full set of photos, including a few from our trip through Seattle on our way home, is up here.

posted July 19, 2014 – 8:39 am

With more and more information surfacing every day about the breadth and depth of the NSA spying programs, it’s hard not to be a little depressed about it. The latest — a report about the Muslim-Americans targeted for surveillance — reminded me about the disparity between the approval rate for search warrants of the FISA court versus a regular court.

FISC has rejected only 12 out of 35,333 requests for surveillance over about 35 years (data from 1979 thru 2013). It’s actually a little hard to find data on how many applications for search warrants are rejected in general, but this book quotes a study that calculated the rejection rate for search warrants over several municipalities to be around 8%. Compare that to the 0.03% rejection rate of the FISC. Do we really think the NSA, CIA, FBI, etc. are 250 times better at crafting requests? Hardly likely, and these FISC warrants are extra hard to challenge in court, since the government claims our national security would be gravely damaged if the targets of such searches were allowed to know anything about them. Given this and everything else we’ve learned of late, any claims of real government oversight over these programs are laughable at best, and criminal at worst (but don’t hold your breath on the latter).

The latest from the Supreme Court sounds to me an awful lot like they’re condoning what amounts to a line-item-veto of laws and tax provisions based on “religious beliefs” — Hobby Lobby objected only to providing birth control (and a particular kind, at that), not health insurance in general. So perhaps we should all reduce our tax payments by about 1.6% this year because of our strongly held beliefs against illegal surveillance, immoral parallel construction, etc.? (Based on a reported 56 billion dollar budget for spying and a 3.45 trillion dollar budget overall.)

posted July 9, 2014 – 11:10 am

A couple years back, I wrote a little bit about starting my own company. I worked on it for a few months, and then, for a number of reasons, put the project on hold. When we moved to Boston last fall, I looked around briefly for jobs, but quickly decided that if I didn’t pick up that project again, I’d look back and regret it. That sentiment seems to be a common one within the startup community (I’ve heard a couple of entrepreneurs say it) and it’s worth examining a little bit further.

I went last night to the Dragon Hardware Hangout, where someone asked a question along the lines of: “How do you know when you have a good idea? Something worth pursuing?” It’s a really good question, and not quite as easy to answer as it might first seem. There are some ideas that are just so obviously good that it’s really a no-brainer to turn it into a business. But in reality, those are few and far between — if an idea is so clearly good, chances are other people either would have done it already, and/or multiple other people are already working on it. The other ideas fall into two (other) categories: things that might make for good startup businesses, and things that just obviously wouldn’t make for good businesses. And it’s the “mabyes” that are tricky.

So how do you figure out if your idea (assuming it falls into that “maybe” bin) is really worth your time, blood, sweat and tears? You can (and definitely should) try to do some due diligence, to work out if your idea is technically feasible and whether there’s a real market for it. But that kind of analysis can only take you so far: it might actually be difficult to get hard numbers on your potential customers at first; you might be in the right ballpark but need to shift your idea a bit before it would sell; the technical feasibility might be hard to evaluate without spending some time on it; and so on. Ultimately, it’s the kind of thing that’s really quite hard to prove or guarantee ahead of time, and instead comes down to your own willingness to accept some risk, and then later on, also convince other people to accept risk (either as investors, collaborators, or even just early adopters). And the dark side to this is that you are constantly reevaluating your decisions. Some of that self-questioning is healthy — Did I really listen to my customers? Am I making the right product? Are there (easy) things I missed that could make a big impact? — but some can fall closer to self-doubt, and it can be a real challenge to keep going, especially when things aren’t going so well. And you don’t always have external validation (especially in the beginning), either, which can amplify that self-doubt.

So that’s it — other people can help you get closer to answering the “Is my idea a good one?” question, but it’s not really possible (most of the time) to definitively predict that an idea is a winner; you have to take at least a little leap and find out empirically. It comes down to you and how you handle risk, uncertainty, and failure, as well as your ability to be self-critical without turning negative. It’s the thing that’s surprised me the most, so far, about starting up a company — how much emotional self-management it involves, even without throwing other people (or money, for that matter) into the mix.

My project is gradually coming out of stealth mode and I’m making lots of progress, even with the aforementioned challenges. If you’re interested in what I’m doing — creating a lab automation system for biologists — you can head on over to the FlySorter website.

posted April 4, 2014 – 12:33 pm

Last weekend marked the 15th annual Pi(e) Party — my annual, nerdy celebration of math, dessert and my birthday (which happens to fall on Pi Day). With our move back to the East Coast, Saturday was also the Boston debut of Sir Mix-a-Bot, who poured ‘em out all night long:

Next year’s party, wherever it might be held, is going to be a big one — Pi Day falls on 3/14/15! 9:26 is the witching (mathing? pieing?) hour, friends, and conveniently, it’ll be a Saturday. Put it on your calendars right now.

posted March 14, 2014 – 10:45 am
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