Category Archives: Life


Since I live and work in essentially the same building when I am in Vancouver, I decided not bother getting a car, as transit is quite good here. Instead, I joined a car sharing program called It ends up costing about $10.50/hour Canadian to use a car in Vancouver… enough that it’s not a slam-dunk, but much cheaper than buying a car to use it just a few times a month. The problem is that it makes the cost of using a car so explicit in its hugeness that I, in my cheapness, end up using it very infrequently. But I digress.

Another problem is that there are two cars near me, and although they have always been available the few times I’ve tried to reserve them, they are far enough away that walking to them it is a little bit of a nuisance. The bus stop is much closer, which has the perverse side-effect of making taking the bus more convenient (at least at first). So when a co-worker told me that there was a Zipcar parked in the garage downstairs from where I live and work, I was very interested. He said it had been there for quite some time, so I thought maybe I’d discovered a car that hadn’t yet made it into the system.

So on Saturday afternoon, I went down there to get the “name” of the car (all cars have a human-ish sounding moniker to uniquely identify them). This VW had the somewhat unfortunate name “Jabilo Jetta”. Then I came upstairs and looked on the Zipcar web site. Still no car that “lives” in the building, so I searched Google for “Zipcar Jabilo Jetta”.

Two hits, both on the web site. But clicking through revealed no reference to the car on the web page. So I clicked on the Google cache, and it said this car lives at 10th and Tolmie Street, not too far away. However, there was no reference to the car on the Zipcar web site at all.

So I called customer service. I explained to the fellow that there was a car in my basement that had been there some time, and that it was not on the web site. He looked it up and said there was no reference to the car. I told him it was definitely there, and it was definitely a Zipcar (the cars advertise the web site pretty blatantly), “so if you’re lookin’ for it… it’s in the basement”. He asked me the license plate, so I put him on hold for a few minutes while I went downstairs to check it out.

I gave him the plate info, and there seemed to be a little activity on his end; he put me on hold a couple times, then talked to his supervisor. While I was on hold, I started to get the horrible feeling that I was overreacting and that perhaps someone who spent a lot of time in the building also spent a lot of time using this car, and I prepared to feel horribly embarrassed.

He returned and informed me that that car had been reported stolen. “Yay!” I chirped. “I’m a hero!” He took down details about where the car was located.

I asked him what would happen next; if someone would come reclaim the car or if the police would get involved. He said he was not sure, but he would file a report and then it would be out of his hands.

Alas, the bad news is that car does not live here, so it personally does me no good. Nevertheless, it was still pretty neat to help recover a stolen vehicle. Maybe I will buy a trench coat and grow some jowls, and you can all just call me McGruff.


I’ve been in Vancouver for about two months now, commuting to the San Francisco Bay Area once in a while. Tonight I did a show in downtown Vancouver and decided to rent a Zipcar (a car-sharing program I signed up for) instead of taking the bus because it’s a venue I’d never been to and I’m just getting over a cold so I didn’t want the added stress of trying to figure out how to bus there.

It was a good show and a fun night. As I was walking back the half kilometer from where I dropped of the Zipcar to my apartment at one in the morning in the 1ºC (34ºF) weather in my comedy outfit, I could see my breath and thought about how living in California has really spoiled me climate-wise. My comedy friend Sean Strycker, a born-and-bred Californian, was up to visit this weekend, and, he remarked how cold it was here, and yeah, he’s right. He was just realizing something I have known for a long time: namely, how lucky and spoiled Californians are about the weather (well, the ones that live on the coast at least).

Canada is a great place with cordial, decent people, and Vancouver is pleasant and beautiful city. And it’s got the most moderate climate in all of Canada.

And yet… it’s still so cold.

Big Changes Ahead

I’ve been working for a company called Health Hero Network, in Mountain View (then Redwood City and now Palo Alto) for the past 9 1/2 years. That’s a very long time for a Silicon Valley job!

I had been trying to figure what to do after leaving HHN for some time now, and consider several ideas. I am at my strongest building something out of nothing, so I knew a start-up was the way to go. In particular, I’ve had enough of working for “the man”, and wanted to be at a start-up I can consider my own.

My brother Erik has an internet start-up based in Vancouver, and I am going to help him out as the main and initial network and server-side expert. We hope to have a preliminary web site up within the next few months.

The office is on the west side of Vancouver, out at the University of British Columbia (UBC). I will be up there a lot — about 80% of my work days will be in the office, so probably 65-75% of the calendar days.

I will be keeping my California apartment in Sunnyvale, but will also be renting a place in Vancouver, and commuting frequently.

I expect to be doing comedy frequently in Vancouver and getting to know the players in the scene there.

So what does this mean to you? If you are accustomed to seeing me in California, you probably won’t see me around nearly as much. If you live in Vancouver and have gotten used to seeing me once in a while… well, I’ll be there much more often!

BART and CalTrain… sitting in a tree… H… A… T… (pause)… I… N… G…

Summary: after waiting for over 20 minutes for BART, it arrived with too tight a margin to transfer to CalTrain. So I had to wait an hour and a half more.

Flying back to San Francisco from Vancouver one Tuesday night in August, I’d planned to take public transit to get back to my place in Sunnyvale. Two reasons: it makes me feel like a responsible citizen (er, responsible permanent resident holding a green card); and I’m cheap.

My flight was scheduled to come at 8:17 PM, and the next CalTrain from Millbrae was scheduled for 8:49 PM… pretty close call, since you have to take BART to get the CalTrain. I was a bit worried, so I upgraded my Alaska flight to first class for about $60, figuring I could carry on my luggage and sit near the front of the plane, hastening my exit.

Sure enough, I sat in row two, and had no trouble getting overhead space for my huge bag. The plane came in early, just after 8 PM, so I zipped off and took the blue AirTrain to the BART. I was at the BART station by 8:19, which I thought was pretty good… had nearly a half hour to get to CalTrain.

But the BART display sign said the next train was due in 22 minutes. What?! That would be 8:41. That seemed like it would cut things pretty close. I found a schedule and it claimed this BART would arrive at the CalTrain station at 8:47 PM. That gave me two minutes to exit BART, cross over the tracks (yes, you have to go up a flight of stairs and down another to get to the southbound CalTrain), buy a CalTrain ticket and board the train. It seemed pretty tight, but I figured they must know what they are doing… why would they hold off BART until 8:41 if people couldn’t make it to the CalTrain, after all?!

OK, I’m sure you can see where this is going.

I sat there, doing nothing for over 20 minutes, waiting for BART. It finally arrived around 8:41, as it was supposed to. I got on. And waited. And waited and waited and waited. What seemed to be forever turned out to be only about three minutes, since I noted the BART left at 8:44. Which I thought was pretty inconsiderate, since we kinda needed to be at the Millbrae station for the 8:49 train, and after all, that’s where EVERYONE on the BART was going… the Millbrae stop is the end of the line, so pretty much everyone was transferring to a train.

As soon as those BART doors opened, I booked it. I ran as hard as I can with luggage… I ran to the exit, jammed in my BART card, ran up the stairs, whipped out my ticket as fast as I could out the CalTrain ticket machine (which of course took a good 10-20 seconds longer than it should have due to credit issues and Murphy’s Law), ran down the stairs… just in time to see several other people just touching the doors as they closed on the southbound train (some of whom I later confirmed did not even stop to buy a CalTrain ticket because they knew it would be so close).

Yes, that’s right. After sitting around for more than twenty minutes, I ran as fast as I could (given my luggage burden) and still did not make the train.

Next train at 10:24. Yes, a good 95 minutes later. It ended up taking me much longer to get from SFO to my home than from YVR (Vancouver airport) to SFO. I repeat: I spent more time TAKING THE TRAIN than the plane.

I was obviously very annoyed by this. The infrequency of the BART and CalTrain and the closeness of the schedule would imply to a reasonable person that they would mesh and that CalTrain would “wait” if there was a delay in BART. But no. If I had known, I would have taken a cab from the airport to the CalTrain.

And thus, no good deed (in this case, taking public transit) goes unpunished.

Continued Immigration Adventures of a Citizen of the World

WARNING: boring entry follows, but I feel like I have to post it anyway because it really happened. And plus, I may end up getting some visitor from search engines this way. Summary: Canadian border patrol is lax and US border patrol is totalitarian and not always well-trained. You may now stop reading any time after this point and I will not be offended.

I’ve lived in the United States since 1991, and after a series of visas (F-1, TN-1, H-1B) finally got my green card last year, so I’ve been an outlier for quite some time. I have seen a lot of confused border guards try to figure out on the fly if I’m legal without letting on to me that they don’t really know the regulations all that well. Often they take out their uneasy feeling of confusion on me because I’m handy.

Today I flew back from Vancouver after a short visit to Canada, the country I was born in.

Canadian passports expire annoyingly frequently, being good for only five years. My most recent passport expires in August 2007, so after a trip in May, I sent it in to get renewed. Higher than normal traffic at the passport office means that I had not received my new passport when it was time to leave for this trip, so I researched regulations (which, as it has been widely publicized, had recently been tightened to required passports for most travelers between the US and Canada) in a detailed way prior to leaving.

I was quite certain that permanent residents of the US were allowed to enter the US with just a green card (as I did on my visit to Canada in May), but was less certain about Canada. For once, I was more worried about getting into Canada than getting into the US!

I investigated and found

which seems to hint (but not conclusively imply) that a US green card is enough to enter Canada.

Just for good measure, I thought I would double-check the US requirements. I found that according to that my green card was enough. It said, in part that

U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) must provide one of the following:

  • I-551, Permanent Resident Card (“Green Card”)

OK. I have one.

Also page 7 of

EXPLICITLY states that

“Lawful Permanent Residents are NOT required to have a passport.”

Just for good measure, this PDF file shows pictures of the documents required, and the green card is enough for departure and entry by air.

I know, I know… overkill in the research department. Chill, Richard! Don’t be so paranoid. Right?

Then I took my trip. United Airlines automated check-in flying out of the US requires a passport, so I had to stand in line and deal with a counter clerk. Very annoying. Good thing I got there early. Then after landing in Canada, I gave the border agent there my green card and said that I’d applied for a passport and was still waiting for it. No prob.

Flying back to the US. The Vancouver airport lets you pass US immigration before you take off. Handy. The line was huge, and I handed the guy my green card. He asked me if I had a passport and I said no. He says, “Are you familiar with the new passport regulations?” Then he proudly hands me a slip of paper with the new regulations on it that reads AND I QUOTE:

“Beginning on January 23, 2007, all persons – including U.S. citizens – traveling by air from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda will be required to have a passport (unless traveling with a U.S. Permanent Resident Card, asylee or refugee document, Merchant Mariner’s Document, or NEXUS Air card) to enter the United States.”

I could tell he was happy about having caught what he thought was just another scofflaw. He says “Everyone needs a passport.” I stammered lamely “But… but… I have a green card?” He says, “Doesn’t matter.” Never mind that I could point out the part in parentheses on the slip of paper HE JUST HANDED ME to prove him wrong. “Here,” he says, sliding the piece of paper a little closer. “Keep that.”

I could tell his guard dropped and he was going to let me through, but I was still stammering. I explained that I’ve applied for a renewal and I’m still waiting and no, I didn’t have any proof that I’ve applied for a renewal (I don’t know what proof I’m supposed to get). I show him my passport that expired ten years ago that I brought along just in case. Still beaming at trapping me, he finally lets me pass.

Not that it matters — I suspect if he’d escalated me to the secondary room where questionable cases go, I would have gotten through pretty quick with someone who actually knows what the regulations are. Er. Maybe.

Viva bureaucracy!

The Life of Pi (with a Free Boost)

At some food outlets, you order at the counter and then wait for your order to come up. A lot of these places will give you an order number printed on your receipt. But some will instead ask your name, and then call your name when your order is ready. I suppose this is an attempt to “personalize” service, and make you feel like more than just a number.

One time, I ordered at a place like this, and when asked my name, I said “Richard” because that’s what it is. The teenaged employee then asked “Is it okay if I just put ‘Rich’?” This kind of irked me… I didn’t volunteer my name. They asked. I told, only grudgingly. Being corrected simply for the sake of the convenience of the slow-typing employee was kind of adding insult to injury.

My first instinct was to promise to myself that I would answer future queries of this sort with “Bartholomew” and then when asked “Is it okay if I just put ‘Bart’?”, triumphantly state “Absolutely not!”

[I will only briefly touch upon the obvious issue that asking a person’s name to match them to orders solves the problem very poorly compared to a guaranteed unique order number. I would guess if your name is “John” or “Brittany”, you would frequently have to delve down to the specific contents of your order to make sure you haven’t gotten food intended for someone else whose parents were as uncreative as your own.]

Of course, reason set in, and I realized that this poor employee did not invent this ridiculous policy asking customers to disclose personal information in an attempt to allow them to have a easily recalled primary key. So instead of wasting effort on how to make their lives more difficult, I then turned my energy to figure out how to make their lives easier.

Obviously, a short name is easier to type. So now, when I order my Orange Berry Blitz (which although has curiously disappeared from the menu board, can still be ordered) with Fiber Boost at Jamba Juice, I lie about my name.

At first I would use the name “Gus”, since it’s short, so quick to type, and rare, so I probably won’t have to delve down to choice of free boosts the figure out which of the three of us similarly named folks this Orange Berry Blitz actually belongs to. Also, the name is funny, which for me, is key.

However, whenever I said “Gus”, I always got this look that seemed to say either “Huh?” or “I don’t believe you.” I always had to say it a couple times. And it’s not that easy to say or hear in a loud environment.

What are the criteria for a pleasant name lie? Short. Easy to say (because I’m lazy too). Easy to remember. Easy to spell. A real name in North America. Recognizable, but not too common. Male.

Here’s a brainstorm list of two-letter possibilities: Al, Bo, Cy, Ed, Hi, Mo, Pi.

The names Cy and Bo are known in athletics but uncommon enough to probably elicit the “huh?” response from unworldly teenage clerks. Al and Ed are simple but common male names.

Lately I’ve been trying “Ed”. I figure an employee would have to be admirably lazy to try to shorten that. “Is it okay if I just put ‘E’?” That takes way longer to say than to find the “d”.

But “Ed” is also not that great a choice. It’s easy and fast to say, but it is also not that easy to hear, especially over the rabble of blenders grinding up energizing smoothies. It’s not that easy to touch-type (although it is easy to one-finger type) on a standard QWERTY keyboard. And worst off, I always have to think about it when they ask me my name, which makes me paranoid that they have trapped me in a lie.

I could try Al, but worry since it is short for Albert, Alan, Alex, Allan, Alvin, Allen, Alberto, Alonzo, Alfred, Alexander, Alfredo, Alejandro, Alfonso, Alton, Ali, Alvaro, Alexis, Alphonso, Alva, Alphonse, Aldo, Alden, Alfonzo, Alec, and Alonso, I could end up fighting for my juice with a dozen people all with different names and several ethnicities.

Mo is less common, but can also be spelled “Moe”, which means I would have to say and spell it.

That leaves Pi. Sure, I’ve never met anyone named Pi. But it is arguably the most famous Greek letter, and the name of a character whose Life Of is documented in a recent award-winning book.

And the best part for this customer who has always had a soft spot for mathematical constants, is that my order identifier would finally be my favourite number… something that just can’t happen at a stodgy traditional place that confines their order numbers to integers.

How very transcendental.

Bay to Broke(n Tummy)

I ran the Bay to Breakers today. It was my fourth year in a row. Got up at 5:20 AM so I could drive to Daly City and take BART to the starting line.

As a “pledge runner”, I got a starting position near the front of the pack, and started quickly. For training, I mostly run a 3.85 mile loop, completely flat. The race is 12K (7.45 miles), and has a big hill between mile two and three. So it’s no surprise that I started out fast and got tired after the first half.

This means that for the last two thirds of the race, I am a slowpoke laggard getting passed left and right. I was constantly at the back of whatever pack I was affiliated with. Everyone passed me: a guy pushing a baby carriage; women — even tiny girls (I would find a burst of energy when this happened, and try to keep up, generally to no avail); guys dressed as Spider Man and Little Bo Peep. It was humiliating.

Yet, I did better than I ever have by nearly three minutes. My official time is 53:10, and I was ranked 365th. Hooray! And I felt like I ran FAST… hit the first mile marker in about 6:05, which is very good for me. My stomach was cramped all day, like it sometimes does when I run too hard. So I don’t feel like I could have asked for much more. It’s the malady that proves the effort.

Math Jesus

Today I got multiple copies of a “pump-and-dump” spam. You know, the kind where they tell you about a stock that is “going to go through the roof” which then does because enough people believe it, so it becomes a self-fullfilling prophecy. The best part is, no one even has to be convinced about the fundamentals of the stock — they just have to believe that enough other people are going to buy. Thus, the pump. Alas, the dump is a tough one. Good luck with the timing on that. But I digress.

Somehow, many copies of this spam made it through Gmail’s normally excellent spam filter. Each was from a different, made-up sender, with first and last names probably independently chosen from some list. What was cool was the name on one of the spams: “Math Jesus”.

How wonderful. I immediately claim ownership of this moniker, since the spammer is probably not aware that this pairing was made. And how fitting. I am very good at math — not the best mathematician the world has ever seen, but definitely way up there. Not a math god. But, yes, dare I say, a Math Jesus.

Thus my new screen name/nickname/band name. Math Jesus.

Gödel showed that we need an infinite number of axioms for a system that can embed the natural numbers to be complete (that is, for every statement to be provably true or false). Something along those lines.

So let me say right now: ten commandments ain’t gonna cut it. That’s just gonna be the tip of the infinite iceberg.


I once got dealt a royal flush.

That’s right. A “natural” royal flush. On a quarter video poker machine.

To make matters even more amazing, it was on the first quarter I gambled that day. (Can you imagine if the guy who had been playing that machine for hours just before saw me come over to “his” machine and hit a royal flush on one quarter?)

The probability of being dealt a royal flush is quite low. There are exactly four such hands — one for each of hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds — and there are 52!/(47! * 5!) different poker hands.

[Where does this number come from? Well, the first card has to be one of the 52 cards in the deck. The second has to be one of the 51 remaining, so there are 52*51 ways to get two cards. The third has to be on of the 50 remaining, so there are 52*51*50 ways to get three cards. Using this reasoning, there are 52*51*50*49*48 ways to get dealt five cards. But rearranging the cards doesn’t change what’s in the poker hand — that is, ace of clubs and two of hearts is the same as the two of hearts and the ace of clubs — so we have to divide by the 5*4*3*2*1 ways to arrange the cards.]

So there are 2,598,960 different poker hands, and exactly four of them are royal flushes. This means the odds of being dealt a royal flush are 1 in 649740.

Them’s not very good odds.

Here’s what happened. Several years ago, I was flying somewhere — I believe to Spokane to visit a friend of mine that lives just over the Idaho border in British Columbia. My plane landed in Las Vegas. I had to switch planes, so I got out and went to the gate. I had a good 45 minutes before boarding started, so I thought I would do some gaming. After all, how much can you lose in 45 minutes?!

I selected a quarter video poker machine. I put in my money and hit deal. It dealt out the cards pretty fast, then made the little happy note sound and highlighted the “Royal Flush” payout line. I was a little surprised (to say the least) and not too sure what was going on. It took me a few seconds to realize that I had actually been dealt a royal flush. I held every card (I was once dealt four deuces in a “Deuces wild” game and I was so flustered, I failed to “Keep” any of them, and thus failed to collect my $50), and hit “Draw”. Ta-da! For my one quarter, I won $75.

If I had put in five quarters, I would have won $1000. Yikes!! So of course I immediately started kicking myself for not having put in five quarters. But hey, what can you do.

Yeah, it was cool. But it was also a downer. I had hoped to kill 20 minutes or so. Now what was I supposed to do… keep playing? As a percentage, I was WAY up. And extremely unlikely to change that one way or the other.

I played a few more anticlimactic hands of poker, then cashed out my now $60-some odd dollar draw and went on my way.

It’s great that I got it. But also it’s a bit of a downer — not because I never CAN do it again, but because I probably never WILL do it again. If you play 450365 hands, you have a 50-50 chance of seeing a royal flush. I probably won’t play anywhere near that number, so I have much less than a 50% chance.

Of course, that’s just being DEALT a royal flush. The odds that it will happen with a draw are much higher, but it’s harder to calculate because it depends upon your strategy. Nevertheless, since I don’t play poker that much, I think it reasonably prudent that I don’t expect to see a royal flush ever again.

But that’s okay. I got mine.

Revisiting my Cubist Period

In preparation for a Rubik’s Cube contest at an 80s party I went to last week, I picked up the puzzle and have been studying and playing around with it a bit lately.

I happened to be in Hungary in the summer of 1980, shortly after the cube was invented by Ernö Rubik, and several months before it became popular in North America. Someone gave me an article in Hungarian about how to solve it. I can’t read Hungarian, but it included a bunch of photos and some “patterns” — that is, series of moves that tweak a small number of “cubies” without disturbing anything else. With these patterns and a little initiative, I taught myself to solve it.

With practice, I could solve it pretty reliable in 90-120 seconds. That’s where I am now. My algorithm is quite simple: first, solve one side. This step does not use any patterns besides one that I devised myself. Each of the following steps does use patterns: place the corners, orient the corners, place the edges, orient the edges.

Three of the four patterns were extracted from that mysterious magazine article, but the forth, which orients the edges, I replaced with a pattern a friend of mine showed me. He called it “Rubik’s maneuver”, so who knows, maybe it was discovered by Rubik himself.

Although 90 seconds is okay, it’s definitely not world class. The real pros can solve it in less than 30 seconds consistently. Maybe less than 20. I’ve look at this site which has a different method of solving the cube that does not do one side first. There are some interesting ideas here I’m going to explore further.

(Oh, by the way, the contest was canceled… they forgot to bring the cubes.)