Category Archives: Work

Too many things vying for focus

Mount Rainier from the house in CentraliaSometimes all the stars align to make life more interesting than the long periods of doing the same thing day after day that seems to be normal. When I was younger, those long periods of the mundane seemed boring. Now they just seem restful. Last night, it dawned on me that, with two days before we are supposed to close on your our new (old) house, I have not made all the arrangements for all the utilities to be switched over to us. At the same time, the sickle cell disease project on which I am working is scheduled to deliver its first device for testing in Africa at the end of April which means I need to complete a boat load of finishing touches. All the while, I have to decide whether I want to stay in my current job and travel to Texas once per month or switch jobs and travel to Vancouver, BC fairly frequently with intermittent trips to China and other far away places (currently leaning toward BC).

In the mean time, we have to make a plan to get all our stuff from Texas and North Carolina to Washington state. The Texas part we have handled, but for the North Carolina part we do not know whether to do it ourselves (fly out there and drive back over a week), hire a couple of college kids to fly out there and drive the truck back for us, or just bite the bullet and get a moving company today. All of these items with their fun and interesting cash flow challenges. And none of this mentions that we start a full-blown remodel of the kitchen and a partial reconstruction of the roof on the new (old) house. Whenever I get too stressed, I look at the picture of the view we hope to have out the back of the house when we are now fogged in or clouded over or both. That helps some. What will help more is to have all this behind us with a cup of coffee in my hand sitting on the porch for a few weeks in a row.

Cool job: Linux, Yeti cups and thermal cameras

I love my job. That is not an unusual thing. I think I have written here on this blog about how Grandpa Milo’s frequently reminded us we might as well love our jobs because we have to go do it whether we love it or not anyway and its corollary with food that we were going to eat it and we were going to like it whether we liked it or not. My current job, however, is not one that is hard to love. Yesterday, one of the VP’s walked into my office (an office with a door!!!) and saw I had one of the old stainless steel cups with the company logo (the one on the left in the photo with the blue top).

He said, “Man, you don’t have a YETI cup yet.”

I did not realize that YETI products were a thing, but I really like the new cup he gave me (the one on the right with the YETI logo at the top). I have to admit I was pretty happy with my original blue-topped cup, but now I am doubly happy.

xubuntu logoAt the bottom of the picture, there is a camouflage thing that looks a lot like a cellphone. That is a Seek thermal camera. It is interesting, fun anddebian logo I get to work with it to do cool stuff in my day to day job. I have not run a Windows computer at my work since I started as everything I develop is for use on a Debian embedded system. I am doing some Windows develop as part of my contribution to the CWRU sickle cell disease diagnosis project, but I do all my development for that project just like I do for my day job, on a Xubuntu box. The sickle cell stuff will eventually go onto a Raspberry Pi so I am doing the development cross platform and building installers for both Windows computers and Ubuntu/Debian computers.

It is truly a gift to love your job and my current job is not like pulling green chain at the mill, I do not have to force myself to do it.

Living vicariously through our children

Christian's lab at ASU (Feb. 2017)Kelly and I had an interesting discussion last night about her work. Her work is very similar to mine in many ways. The work Christian does has similarities to mine, but they are superficial (see his office in the picture to the left). Some have assumed I pushed Christian toward the kind of work I do to live vicariously through his superior training and skills. Over all the years of homeschool, I fought against that, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. In the end, though Christian went off into an area for which I am admittedly a fan-boy, but that is so deep in the bowels of the theoretical math associated with network information theory, I have no clue about how even to talk about it with him.

My pleasant surprise with Kelly was revealed when we talked about something she does at work. She developed and ran a survey for use in creating a marketing strategy for her company. She is in the process of figuring out what the data mean. Kelly at Starbucks in Canby, OR (Jan. 2017)One of her first steps was to find where and how different sets of features (answers to survey questions) cluster with respect to the characteristics of the customers who took the survey. Crazily, she is using precisely the same algorithms I use every day to find clusters of motion pixels in video images that indicate someone is about to fall out of a bed in a hospital. She predominately uses the R statistical programming language, but also Python which she is in the process of learning. The clustering algorithms she is trying are k-means clustering, mean-shift filtering, density based spatial clustering, support vector machines, etc.

For my part, my undergraduate degree is in marketing. I implement all of the same algorithms with C++, python and am learning R, but to perform image segmentation. She LOVES that stuff. I LOVE that stuff. I actually think she has the perfect job for her. It is exciting to her the same way my work is exciting to me, both on a technical level and for her love of engaging with customers and fellow employees. I did not plan it this way, but I am getting a little bit of a vicarious thrill from watching her in her new job.

Another whirlwind trip to Washington

Lorena at McDonaldsLorena took me to McDonald’s early this morning then dropped me off at the airport. If all goes well, I will have a look at our (hopefully) new house along with my real estate agent and my builder (thank you Mark P. for driving up from Oregon). Then I will get on a plane at midnight and arrive back in Dallas just in time to go to work on Tuesday morning when we are going to make the first major new installation of some machine vision/machine learning/video analytics software.

In the mean time, the working I am doing on finding low cost new methods to diagnose sickle cell disease in developing countries is getting to a critical juncture. I need to put some finishing touches on the work I am doing on that project so they can start real tests. I will have to work on that on the airplane ride to Seattle and in the hotel room so I can deliver it to the team that needs it at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Thankfully, that is something that can be done by email and dropbox.

A great video on one of the great sadnesses of our times

I saw the video below that a friend posted this video on Facebook last night about challenges for millennials in the workplace. I think it says some important things that has caused me to think I need to work on some of my own behaviors.  He talks about addiction to social media–on cell phones in particular and the dopamine high that is triggered. He talks about what a great disservice it was to tell children they were great when they were not great. He talks about the idea of delayed gratification that seems to be completely missing in an entire generation of young people. He talks about the increase in suicide and accidental drug overdose in that generation that is most probably a result of this. I think he is exactly right on all that. The video is truly a worth 15 minutes of your time.

It was kind of depressing though that in about the last third of the video he espouses the idea that the corporations need to take responsibility for fixing this. That is a completely different subject, but he is objectively wrong on that. The corporations might need to address the issues associated with this large problem because it prevents them from finding good, long term employees that facilitate them meeting achieving their purpose–to make money. Corporations should not be tasked with social engineering. They should, like government, achieve their purposes without meddling in peoples’ in areas where they are so patently unqualified. They really, really have competing interests with respect to what is good for individuals and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The individuals themselves, their families and, most importantly, God and their spiritual communities are the only ones who have the truly worthwhile answers to these kinds of challenges. Disinterested third parties whether they are government school teachers, coaches, bureaucrats, academics and even bad parents are the ones who trained them in this wrong thinking in the first place.

Link to video on Millenials in the workplace

The house hunt inches forward

10.6 of 60

I went backwards about a pound and a half on my exercise/diet program, but other than that, life is pretty good. I am beating my buddy Lyle W. like a drum on the number of steps on our Fitbit’s, but that is mostly because he has been sick. I still counting it while I can because I am sure it won’t last. The house is still in Washington state is still up in the air, but we have our fingers crossed. I have a ticket out there in a week and a half to meet my other buddy, Mark P. to do the final inspection if we get our latest offer accepted. It is all good. I also have two work-from-home jobs (one requires domestic travel, the other requires domestic and international travel) from which I need to choose within the next couple of months. Now, though, we are on hold to see whether or not we have a house.

Pulling the trigger for a big change

Possible house in WashingtonI signed and returned the acceptance letter for a job offer yesterday. The company’s headquarters are in Vancouver, BC, but I will work from home somewhere in Washington State. This change is quite a big adventure for us. We should be close enough to Grandpa Milo to be able to drive him to church on a semi-regular basis. We will be closer to our kids and be able to see them more often–it is a short drive or train ride to see Kelly or for her to visit us. The job is with a good group of people with whom I have worked as one of their customers for 5-6 years. It is challenging, interesting and will require some travel (Asia, USA and Europe), but not too much after the first round to get to know customers and colleagues.

The adventure part of the whole affair, if we can make it work, is that Lorena wants to find a house to remodel close to a city center. We loved living in downtown Wilsonville when we were last in Oregon with the ability to walk to stores and restaurants. We want to try to duplicate that. We have a real estate agent who says he thinks he can find us something that fills the bill within our budget. He sent us links to places that look great. It might not work out exactly like that, but we are going to give it the old college try and see what happens. Lorena has a plane ticket to fly to Seattle on Tuesday morning to, hopefully, find us “the” house somewhere on the I-5 corridor between Vancouver, WA and Tacoma. We expect to stay in Texas until the second week of January and get back to the Pacific Northwest with our truck full of worldly goods in time to attend Grandma Sarah’s funeral on MLK day in the Portland area.

Moving back out west

I have worked as a Machine Vision engineer for over thirty years. Grandma Sarah actually found an ad for a technical writing/industrial training position with a robot/vision company in Corvallis named Intelledex back in 1983 shortly after I returned from a three month stint at University of Guadalajara to learn Spanish. The industry was very young at the time, but both the hardware and software to do useful work with cameras hooked up to computers was starting to make economic sense to solve a few classes of problems in the semiconductor, defense and electronics industries.

From then until now, there were a good number of people who focused on writing algorithms to do useful things with images. There seemed to be fewer people who dedicated themselves to cobbling those algorithms together with statistical, database and robot and equipment control algorithms to measure stuff, guide robots and perform solve “on the factory floor” problems. From the very beginning, I was one of those guys. It seemed then (and it seems like it has not changed much over the years) that most of the capable vision engineers wanted to write individual, low level algorithms while only a few of us were dedicated specifically to algorithms. The funny deal is that after ten years or so of application development it dawned on me that low level algorithm development was easier and more powerful when it was informed by knowledge of a broad application domain.

To make a long story shorter, after about fifteen years in the industry, I started to follow a career path solely devoted to solving especially difficult machine vision problems (inspecting chip capacitors for defects at 35 parts per second, finding retinal features in very noisy OCT images at high rates of speed, measuring 3d surface defects in U235 pellets as the bounced and rotated down counter rotating roles, performing pupil/gaze angle tracking at 400 frames per second, etc.). So the last fifteen years or so, I have gone from position to position to find hard problems, solve them and move on to the next thing. It is work I love.

I said all that to say that I have just about finished the work I came to do in Texas (performing video analytics to determine, in real time, whether someone in a hospital is about to fall out of bed so a care giver can be signaled to go to the aid of the patient). I have been offered a position out west to work on 3d imaging problems, not to write low level algorithms although there will be some of that, but to use these 3d cameras to create solutions to families of industrial problems around the world. Lorena and I have decided I should accept the position.

The other upside to this new position is, hopefully, I will be able to stay there until I retire. There are so many opportunities to solve hard problems with the new and improving 3d cameras and scanning systems, that I will likely have gainful employment as long as I am able to do the work. In addition, we will be closer to Kelly, Christian and Grandpa Milo and should be able to see them more often. There will be more about our move (when/where) as soon as I find out where we will move (it is a work from home job).

Kelly shopping for glasses

Kelly shopping for glassesThis may not sound like such a big deal, but when Kelly sent us pictures of the new glasses she tried on today, it dawned on me that she will get her new prescription and her new glasses with her own insurance that she earns at work at her new job. She starts on Monday. They have all the normal, new employee meetings and paperwork as the obligatory, take the new employee to lunch trip. I love the first day of a new job and this is Kelly’s first, not in internship, not at school job where she plans to be there for a number of years at the very least. How cool is that.

So, my struggles about finding things to write for this blog will get even harder because now she is not only out of homeschool, she is out of school altogether. It is all quite exciting.

Coming soon: A semi-momentous anouncement

Some really good stuff is happening, some of which has to do with schooling and some with work. Lorena and I are spending most of the day indoors today, not because we want to be here on a beautiful sunny fall day (not to hot for a change), but because we have to work. I have taken on another project to help with a medical device for developing countries and Lorena is studying for her Statistics class. She has two classes this term, so she is pretty busy. That is all good stuff, but not the subject of this post. I just wanted to put up a marker because some good decisions were made to make a change, but the exact direction is not yet established. I think in a couple of days we can celebrate it and talk about it.

Doing my one trick

It is not much of a joke, but in terms of my work, I describe myself as a one trick pony. I generally hired to fix one hard problem in the domain of machine vision and image processing. I do that one trick and then I am on to the next thing. I can do other stuff in the domain of certain specialized types of programming, but the one thing at which I am really good is that one trick. My single minded focus over the last couple of months has been to do that work in most of my spare time at home as well as at work. I figure I have one or two more months of that kind of work before I have all my volunteer work, contract work and other sundry efforts under control well enough to get back to a more normal life. I really do love it, but it gets in the way of exercise, reading and even eating well, so I need to get it all out of the way. I am writing this because 9/11 is a nice reminder to put some things into perspective. This is fun stuff that pays the rent, but it is still not nearly as important as what comes down to relationships, first with God, then with family, friends and neighbors. I guess it is time to make a plan to really get this stuff out of the way and get on with real life.

Oddly productive, unproductive weekend

Kiwi and I studying hard over the weekend
Lorena and I planned to drive to Wichita last Friday for a working weekend. I turned out that the people with whom we were to work planned to leave after lunch on Saturday so we decided a conference call working session made a lot more sense than twelve hours of driving followed by four hours of work. I have a ton of things to accomplish at my day job and planned to spend the bulk of what time I had left on the weekend for that. I accomplished two things: the conference call (four hours on Saturday morning) and a lot of “contemplation” sessions with Kiwi like the one shown in the image above. Well, there was a little bit more to it than that–Kelly and Christian both called and we talked for long stretches on life and their current paths.

The talks with Kelly and Christian were the most productive parts of the weekend. Christian is at about the halfway point of his PhD program, living through the pain of his third Tempe summer and the bloom of graduate school is definitely off the rose. He is in a good place with his work–he and his professor are performing the final edits on a paper about the research he has performed over the last two years which they will submit in the next week or so. On the other hand, he spends so much time working, there is little time for anything else, so he is looking forward to the day when he can get a regular job where he goes to work in the morning, goes home in the evening and has weekends off–all in a place where the daytime temperature only hits triple digits four or five days per year.

Kelly, on the other hand, is not so enamored with the actual day to day work of her degree. She does not think she wants to do marketing research and/or be an academic, so she is trying to decide whether to finish where she just to have her graduate school complete forever, or switch graduate schools and go back to a degree and field that is a little bit more rigorous–probably in the use of statistics. It is a hard decision, but she has a great opportunity to go either way. The good thing is that she is thinking about it objectively. It might be worth it to just finish out–she is in a good place to do that academically, but if she hates it, she might be better served to step back, reconsider what she wants and move onto something for which she has a passion.

A bigger office!

I have been at my current day job for about four months. My normal stay at a job is usually in the one to three year range because I am usually there to solve a narrow, very specific hard problem that, when it is solved, they have no more need for the likes of me. This time, though, there was a prefect storm. When I first got there, I got put into an office with a door that had a lock because it was over on the business (as opposed to engineering) side of the house. The lock was a pain in the neck because I had to use my key on Thursdays and Mondays to get in after the cleaning people came the night before. Now, the business is doing well, so they hired a new business guy which was timed by one of the technical guys moving on to another job and leaving me a double size office with a beautiful wood desk and a window. Alright, the window is one of those tall narrow ones beside the door that looks out onto the hallway, but it is still a window. Feels good!

The Amazon interview “bait and switch”

Christian sent me a great article about a guy who got “bait and switched” by the Amazon interview process. The title of the article is My Interviews with Amazon. Full disclosure: Amazon has approached me three times. I made it through the first interview to the second time one time before I got feed up and told them to not call me back. I was smarter on the next two passes, telling them I was not interested at the outset. Amazon has a reputation as notoriously bad place to work. It might not be as bad as Apple, but it seems to be pretty bad. Even though I love their services and prices, I am rethinking how much I really want to spend with them.

My experience in the interviews I had with Amazon were very much in the same vein as that described in the article. The funny deal is that I have a good friend who works for them at a high level. He is good at his job, but the first product he worked on for them (a famous hand-held device they tried to make) failed miserably. The reason they interviewed me was because they knew I had the exact skills they wanted from the mouth of one of their most highly regarded scientists, but were willing to treat me badly enough in the interview that I knew working for them was something I would neither do nor advise any of my highly skilled colleagues to consider.

Cal Newport: Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

SoGoodTheyCantIgnoreYouA professor of Computer Science from Georgetown University wrote a book that sounds interesting about the importance of acquiring skills as a base from which to work at something you love. The premise of the book is very much aligned with things I have written previously on this blog, especially the recent post about Mike Rowe’s thoughts on the topic. Here is an excerpt from the blurb about the book on Amazon:

Cal Newport debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice.  Not only is the cliché flawed-preexisting passions are rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work-but it can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping.

After making his case against passion, Newport sets out on a quest to discover the reality of how people end up loving what they do. Spending time with organic farmers, venture capitalists, screenwriters, freelance computer programmers, and others who admitted to deriving great satisfaction from their work, Newport uncovers the strategies they used and the pitfalls they avoided in developing their compelling careers.

Matching your job to a preexisting passion does not matter, he reveals. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before.

In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.

He writes a blog, too. The first post I read there is titled The Deliberate Creative and is an absolutely stellar analysis of an article and a book about the idea that 10,000 hours of focused practice provides a level expertise to perform at a high level in most areas of endeavor. I am in complete agreement with Newport on this analysis–he takes the side of the hard workers. That probably resonates with me more because of the kind of work that I do that leaves me with less appreciation for the kind of creativity discussed in the article Newport address.

There is an interesting discussion down in the comments between Newport and the author of the article, Scott Berry Kaufman, who holds that 10,000 hours of work is not enough to be truly creative (read the article). I am sure Kaufman is a bright guy, but he is one of those guys who does not do intelligence, rather he studies intelligence. Newport, on the other hand, appears to have done hard math (it appears that his dissertation is similar in nature to the doctoral research our son Christian is doing for the same institution where Newport received his PhD). The upshot is that, while many of us have no understanding of how great violinists, painters and other fine artists create new art, people who do not work in the areas of physics, math, chemistry and other such fields do not understand the kind and amount of effort required to get to the point where the creative process can even start. I just thought it was all very fascinating and I enjoyed the back and forth. Maybe there is a category difference here to which both allude but that leads to an unintended equivocation.

For such a young guy, Newport has done quite a lot of writing. The book on why “skills first” is a great approach looks great. I think I would agree somewhat less with advise on how to perform well in high school and college and not just because I am a proponent of skipping high school altogether. Based on the blurb for his other books, I think it is at least partially because he seems to be more focused on the measures of academic performance than mastery of subject matter. In a list of strategies in a blurb for his book titled How to Become a Straight-A Student, half of the strategies seem to advocate for this. That, however, is a minor quibble. I plan to order his books and read his blog regularly.

Machine learning

Professionally, I have to make a (semi) dramatic change in direction to learn some new stuff so I can do my job. I have to drop my work on my EKG project and GaugeCam for the next few months because I need to learn more about machine learning. I have done a little of it with R, Weka and OpenCV, but I have a need to delve into it more deeply to build a product that is commercially viable now so I am going to chose between learning more about R or learn about scikit-learn with Python. I am leaning toward scikit-learn because they say it is easier to learn for someone who is used to procedural languages like C/C++/Python/etc. I am actually kind of excited. I actually have real data with which I can get started and real problems I can try to solve that might be a help both commercially and altruistically. I will try to put some of my results up here as I go along.

Dating a skilled tradesman is dating down?

Mike Rowe writes a great post on an article in the New York Post titled The Solution to NYC’s Man Drought? Date Down.  Rowe does a brilliant job of describing exactly why this is such a bigoted and abjectly ignorant article after first setting out the premise behind the article like this:

Apparently, Manhattan has 38% more young, college-educated women than it does similar men. This “academic inequality” has lead to something called a “man drought,” and now, thousands of college educated women are struggling to find a “suitable mate.” The solution? According to the headline, more women should consider “dating down,” a process whereby college educated women explore romantic possibilities with men from a “lower educational or social class.” The article itself includes several profiles of happy couples, each consisting of a man who didn’t graduate from college and a woman who did, and concludes that certain men who didn’t get a college degree just might be a viable option for white-collared women who did.

You really need to read Mike Rowe’s article, but I had a few additional thoughts on the subject that might add a little more nuance to what he said. It is arguable that it takes a good chunk more knowledge, skill and training to complete a plumbing or electrical apprenticeship than it does to get a Bachelors or even a Masters degree in Sociology, Psychology, English or (help us) Women’s Studies. I would probably even put most law degrees in that same category. My immediate thought when I saw this was to wonder why skilled trades people, often businessmen in their own right, would lower their sights and standards enough to consider dating women who might be more credentialed1 but who are almost certainly less educated (as opposed to schooled) and make less money than themselves. Thank you Mr. Rowe for more great observations on the state of our society and how work is valued by the pseudo-elites.

1This might even be arguable. People who have the credentials required to work in skilled trades in New York City do not have to apologize to anyone about the rigor of the training they receive to earn their licenses.

Mike Rowe: Don’t follow your passion

I love the video below. It fits into many of the categories about which I regularly write: education, debt, work, business and even Christianity. It talks about one of the major themes of the Chapman household both when I was a kid and when Kelly and Christian were kids. I think it even applies to graduate degrees. It is nice to do what you love, but you have to put beans on the table first. One of the best pieces of advice I got from Grandpa Milo was to love what you do (your work) whether you love it or not–it does not do any good to hate it because you have to do it anyway. That was right up there with one of my other favorites–you are going to eat what we give you and you are going to like it whether you like it or not.

I am not sure Mike Rowe would approve, but I think this dictum applies to higher education, too. I agree with Mr. Rowe that way too many people go to college, not so much because going to college is a bad thing or they are not able to handle it, but because the educational product they purchase neither leads to a job nor really teaches them anything of value–quite to the contrary actually. I write regularly about why I think it is important, if one goes to college, to study something hard that leads to a job. That generally means a STEM degree. STEM degrees are rarely fun and require a lot of hard work, but because industry needs people who get math, they are worth doing. Liberal Arts degrees generally are not. I have written about this a lot (just enter “STEM” into the search box and you will see) and there is actually scholarship by guys like Charles Murray to back this up.

So, now our kids, after earning STEM degrees, are getting PhD’s at good universities. Are they worth it? We are not sure yet. Neither of the kids even really know what they want to do with their lives, but neither of them have any debt and they both have undergraduate degrees that are in high demand and they are both getting paid to get their PhD’s. They are paid well enough to have small apartments, eat, travel (a little), keep up a car, etc. In addition, they are both provided tuition, fees and health insurance. Are they miserable a lot of the time due to the fact that what they are doing is very hard, very time consuming, requires them to work while many of their same-age friends go skiing, surfing, partying, hiking and traveling? Yes. Would they say what they are doing is in any way fun or even something about which they had a lot of passion before they started? No. Do they have passion about what they are doing, a sense of accomplishment for what they have done and a growing love and interest in their academic areas? Yes.

The big question though is whether they will be able to put beans on the table with the tools they got from the path they have taken? They are doing that already and it should only get better. On second thought, I think Mike Rowe might approve. Check out his foundation here. It has links to interesting articles and videos on a choices, lifestyles and values that would help both individuals and the entire country if more people embraced them.