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Corporate holiday parties

Last night was the Google Platforms & Ecosystem holiday party. Overall it was fun; they held it at the Exploratorium, so there were plenty of activities to keep attendees entertained (the Curious Contraptions exhibit was particularly cool). There was a blues band that was quite good, and the food was tasty (although we’d expected more of it; next time we’ll eat dinner beforehand). The party had a Candyland theme, so there was everything you’d need for a sugar rush. And they very conveniently provided bus transportation from the South Bay, so we didn’t have to worry about fighting traffic or finding parking up in the city.

Holiday party at the Exploratorium

I find it interesting to compare the different holiday parties I’ve been to and what they say about who the company thinks its employees are. The Google P&E party was geared toward engineers and scientists (it was held at the science museum, after all). Samsung Research held its holiday party (the only one they held in my six years there) at the San Jose Art Museum (which was a lot of fun, since it feels more natural to dress up for an art museum than for a science museum, and looking at the art was more of a change of pace then playing with science experiments). Samsung was on a big push to grow its User Experience Center, so it made sense to choose a venue that would appeal to people interested in art and design.

IBM Research’s holiday party, by contrast, was targeted squarely at families with young kids. They held it on a Saturday afternoon, kids could get their picture taken with Santa, and they had balloon artists, face painters, and caricaturists. Plus the kids could decorate cookies, and they usually had a variety of arts and crafts activities. Our daughter always loved it and looked forward to it every year; I was squarely in their expected demographic while I worked there.

While our daughter is old enough now that we can leave her on her own while we attend a holiday party, I’d personally enjoy it if Google’s party became a more family-oriented affair. But my impression of their expected audience is that they’re primarily targeting twenty-somethings who are either single or who don’t have kids, so I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Holiday decorations at Google

The holiday decorations recent went up at Google. There’s a display right by the lobby of my building. Last year’s was somewhat forgettable (it was something with ice and penguins), I must confess that I rather like this year’s. It’s a little snowy forest scene, complete with stuffed animal deer and otters. The best part about the display is that they incorporated the comfy chairs that usually occupy that spot, so that you can kick back and get a little work done while part of your own little winter wonderland.

A decorative holiday scene at Google

IBM sells off Notes

This past week brought news that IBM is selling off Notes. I can’t decide if I’m surprised that IBM finally sold it off or that it took them so long to do so.

When I worked for IBM Research, Notes was arguably the primary focus of HCI research at IBM, since it was essentially the collaboration software at IBM. Of course, even while I was still there (I left in 2012), HCI and collaboration research were definitely in decline (it didn’t help that most of the HCI researchers I knew at IBM left for other companies in the 2010-2014 timeframe). IBM made a half-hearted attempt to create enterprise-focused social software (Connections, which looks like it may continue to exist), but data management and analysis were clearly the company’s primary focus. 

While IBM kept Notes going for a long time, it was a relic from another time. IBMers used to talk about how Notes pre-dated modern email when explaining its idiosyncrasies, as though that somehow justified continuing to stick with it (as opposed to demonstrating that first doesn’t  necessarily mean better). I can still remembering people in meetings claiming they hadn’t received a message yet, and being reminded by other participants to replicate their database (as opposed to check for new mail).

Still, it’s hard not to feel just a little nostalgic. Hopefully those folks I know who are still with IBM find interesting places with interesting work to land.

Changing cuisine

I was in grad school before I ate sushi or had a curry at a Thai restaurant. International cuisine in my hometown was the Chinese restaurant that served Americanized dishes like sweet-and-sour chicken and pork. So it’s interesting to contemplate how much things have changed since then.

Now we can often find ingredients like lemongrass and tomatillos at our local farmers market, and if we can need something more unusual we can swing by 99 Ranch or one of several small Indian grocery stores. Our daughter has lamented that she might have to leave good Mexican food behind, depending on where she goes to college (of course, that depends on where she actually decides to go).

Our weeknight dinners have also exposed her to a much wider variety of dishes as well, more than I ever experienced growing up. I mentioned previously that we’d been cooking more from Milk Street Magazine, Chris Kimball’s latest venture. Just this weekend we made their caramel-braised chicken and their ginger-beef with rice noodles, and she enjoyed both of them. Of course, while her palate may have experienced much more than mine did at her age, she still exhibits some of the pickiness that I did at her age. To this day I cannot understand how she has no issue eating raw fish, but turns her nose up at risotto (all of whose constituent ingredients she likes).

Given how international our cuisine has become in the last 30 years, I’m really curious as to where it will go in the next thirty. What new international foods will become more commonplace? Or will we see a pullback to more traditional cuisine, as people rediscover “the basics” after branching out to many new foods and ingredients?

Learning Kotlin

I’m building a UX prototype at work that’s relatively well-contained and not facing an immediate deadline, so I’ve been using it as an opportunity to learn Kotlin (in combination with Big Nerd Ranch’s Kotlin Programming Guide; I used their original iOS programming guide way back when to learn Objective-C, so I have a good opinion of their books).

So far my impression is fairly positive. As is often pointed out, it’s less verbose than Java (although with the introduction of lambda functions in Java 8, the language did get a bit slimmer). And functions are first-class entities, so you can use a more functional programming style if that’s your thing (I personally find that sometimes the conciseness of functional programming actually makes code harder to read; less isn’t always better).

I think my favorite part of the language is extensions, which allow you to (appear to) add new methods and properties to existing classes. There are certain patterns and behaviors that I often leverage in prototypes, and it’s really useful to add them directly to classes rather than working with utility classes or other workarounds.

Kotlin’s interoperability with Java makes it fairly easy to get productive with the language. I spent a few days reading the book in my spare time, and then pretty much jumped immediately into building the prototype. Often the hardest part of getting productive with a language is learning what libraries are available and how to use them, and with Kotlin (at least for Android development) your knowledge of existing libraries transfers pretty directly. There’s still some learning required to pick up Kotlin’s libraries for collections, strings, etc., and it’s standard functions, but they can be added incrementally as you slowly transition from Java libraries to Kotlin libraries. There are a variety of Android Kotlin extensions as well, but you can similarly work them in incrementally as you learn them (like I said, extensions are one of the best parts of the language).

So less than a week and I’m already productive in the language. For now it’s pretty much all been upside, so I plan to stick with the language for now.

Hockey Fights Cancer

We went to a Sharks game last night, and before the game started they had a moment of silence for those who are fighting or have lost their lives to cancer as part of the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer charitable initiative. They also asked the crowd to turn on the flash on their phone, which is the first time I’ve encountered an explicit request for that type of audience participation (usually it’s spontaneous). It was touching to see so many people participating.

A moment of silence as part of Hockey Fights Cancer

The game was fun, with the Sharks shutting out the Canucks 4-0. Three of the Sharks’ goals came on power plays, despite our daughter asserting several times that the Sharks power play is awful (and to be fair, it is ranked pretty low). Overall the Sharks looked pretty sharp, while the Canucks seemed a little disjointed. And one of their players bit Vlasic in the final minutes of the game, which is just weird.

Our Thanksgiving meal

We realized a few years ago that while turkey is traditional for Thanksgiving, none of us actually like it that much. We’re all perfectly fine with eating it (which is why we’d done it for years), but for a holiday that centers on food we decided it would make more sense to cook dishes we looked forward to eating more. And that includes the main dish. So we started cooking other things. (The New York Times had a recent article on turkey brining that discussed how some cooks are moving beyond turkey, so we feel vaguely avant garde.)

This year we once again choose Cooks Illustrated’s chili con carne as the main course. We really like their chili, and it has the added benefit of taking several hours to cook, making the kitchen toasty warm and filling the house with its fragrance.

For our primary side we opted for the smoked gouda variant of their garlic mashed potatoes. We typically switch back and forth between that recipe and their twice-baked potatoes (which are basically a fat delivery mechanism), so we’ll make the latter for Christmas this year.

We made their gluten-free corn muffins for our rolls. They’re tasty, and the recipe makes enough leftovers that we can enjoy them for a few days. Our daughter particularly likes them for breakfast, warmed up and drizzled with maple syrup.

For dessert we went with an old family recipe for peanut butter pie. There are a number of online variants that are pretty close. I’m not sure where my parents originally got the recipe, but I remember having it as a kid and our daughter is a huge fan. These days we typically make an oreo crust from scratch, which is much easier than it sounds.