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Android Pie statue unveiling

This week Google unveiled the Android statue for Pie. It was my first statue unveiling as a Googler, so I figured I’d actually catch it in person (in future years I can act blase and cynical, but c’mon: if you’re working on Android you’ve got to catch at least one, right?) It was both fun and a bit underwhelming; there were a fair number of people, so as a result you couldn’t really see that much.
I found the design of the statue interesting, though. One of the things that’s surprised me at Google is how many tourists swing by and take photos with the latest Android statue. Seriously, this is what want to do on your vacation? Take pictures at a company? Granted, there aren’t many tourist attractions in Silicon Valley, but wouldn’t you rather go up to San Francisco?

Anyway, the statues have arguably gotten progessively more amenable to pictures: they’ve gotten smaller, and they increasingly accomodate groups of people. The Pie status is yet another step in that direction: I’ve already seen people sitting on the pie pieces to the left and right of the statue, which balances the height of the statue and the height of the people nicely, when taking photos. And of course the status is positioned so that pictures are likely to catch the Google logo on building 43 behind it. It’ll be interesting to see if and how the trend continues for the statue for Q.

Google Seattle

Last week I headed up to Google’s Seattle (or, more specifically, Fremont) offices for a workshop. I visited Google NYC earlier this week, but this was my first visit to (some of) the Seattle offices. They’ve got a nice location: right across the Fremont bridge on the west side, and some of the buildings are right on the ship canal. In fact, the folks we’re working with have views right out onto the canal, and I’m jealous. My desk has a lovely view of absolutely nothing (although I do appreciate that California’s weather allows me to spend part of each day working outside).

It was the first time I’d had to visit Seattle in awhile (the last time I spent any significant time there was in the early 2000s, when I split my time between Pittsburgh and Seattle when finishing my PhD). South Lake Union has almost completely transformed; on a future visit I’d like to spend more time wandering around that area. And the new(-ish) light rail makes it a lot easier to get to and from the airport. But Lake Union, Fremont, and Wallingford (where I stayed) didn’t feel drastically different. And the dynamic lighting conditions still allow you to appreciate the scenery in different ways throughout the day. I do like the fact that the Bay Area’s consistent weather allows me to bike to work every day for much of the year, but sometimes the relentlessly blue skies and sun do feel a little… oppressive. I know, cry me a river.

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Financial Fitness Week at Google

We just finished Financial Fitness Week at Google. Teaching people about finance is something that our society doesn’t do very well. I had an economics class in high school, that was really more about a higher-level picture of the economy rather than more concrete lessons about saving, investing, IRAs, 401ks, 529s, and the like. Most of what I know I’ve picked up on my own, starting with picking up a copy of The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need in grad school while interning at Microsoft Research (the first time I’d earned enough to need to start deciding what to do with my money). I still have my copy, and I still recommend it to people who want to start learning about their options.

When I was at Samsung I regularly encouraged colleagues to make sure they were contributing enough to their 401k to get the corporate match (it was astonishing to me how many didn’t unless explicitly encourage). Often those who weren’t contributing were avoiding doing so because they weren’t sure how to allocate their investments; no one had ever explained to them what to consider when choosing because possible investments (for example, the different between active and passive mutual funds). Once I even held a lunch time information session for the folks on my team to explain some of the basics (passive vs. active, stocks vs. bonds, regular vs. Roth contributions, etc.).

So I was happy to learn that Google doesn’t just make financial information available to its employees, it actively holds classes during a designated Financial Fitness Week. Most of them covered the basics of investing and planning for retirement, but there were some more advanced classes as well. I attended a class on optimizing your 401k, and I learned about an option with Google’s 401k that I wasn’t aware of: you can make after-tax contributions above the $18500 contribution limit and then recharacterize them as Roth contributions, allowing you to exceed what would otherwise be the Roth contribution limit. That’s an option I’ll definitely be taking advantage of in the future.

I’m not sure how many Googlers actually take advantage of the classes (none of my colleagues seemed to do so, but they might have done so in previous years), but I’m definitely glad that the company holds them and actively reaches out to employees to make them aware of them.

Sleeping over at the Monterey Aquarium

The Monterey Aquarium holds sleepovers throughout the year, and for roughly the past seven years my daughter and I have gone to one every summer (we attempted a rough count last night over dinner, and we think this is our seventh year). The first year my wife joined us as well, but a very loud and persistent snorer that first year turned her off on the whole experience.

The sleepover experience is pretty straightforward. You check in 1-2 hours before the aquarium closes (in the summer this time overlaps with the Aquarium’s Evenings by the Bay, so you can also enjoy live music and a bit to eat if you’re so inclined. Then at closing time you go through a quick orientation while they usher everyone else out, and after that the aquarium is yours for the rest of the evening. They offer a snack (milk and cookies!) at 9, and then at 9:30 let you set up in designated areas to sleep. This year they experimented with requiring reservations to cut down on the competition for spaces in the Open Seas exhibit, which (from our perspective) worked out quite well. Then a bit after 10 they show a movie (this year it was Finding Dory, since Pixar did a lot of research at the Aquarium). The next morning they wake you up for a continental breakfast at 7, some wildlife viewing from the deck, and a naturalist talk or two, before ushering you out at 8:30 AM.

For younger kids much of the fun is from the newness of the experience. Now that our daughter is older, the fun is more about upholding tradition. I’m a little surprised she’s stuck with it so long; each year I sort of expect it to be the last. But so far the tradition continues.

Alaska

For our summer vacation this year we spent a couple of days in Vancouver (which always strikes me as a cleaner version of Seattle, which is saying something because Seattle is already pretty clean) and then headed out on a nine day Alaskan cruise. I love Alaska (well, at least Alaska in the summer); the scenery is beautiful, there’s tons of wildlife and outdoor activities, and it’s a nice break from summer heat. We visited on a cruise in 2013 and I’ve always wanted to come back. On this trip we were once again on the Disney Wonder (we’ve had consistently great experiences on Disney Cruises), but with 9 days instead of last time’s 7 (adding visits to the Hubbard Glacier and Icy Straight Point to Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Tracy Arm).

This year we had generally great weather. It was almost sunny in Ketchikan, our first stop, where we boarded a smaller boat for an expedition to Misty Fjords National Monument. Although we say only part of it (the Behm Canal, New Eddystone Rock, and Rudyerd Bay), the monument was very pretty, particularly the Bay: it was narrow with high walls, and reminded me a bit of Tracy Arm and the Geiranger Fjord).

Then it was on to Icy Straight Point, where we went hiking on Chichagof Island. The hike was pretty, although I wish it had been a bit longer. We didn’t end up seeing any bears, although we saw plenty of bear signs (scat and tracks). Chichagof is one of the ABC islands (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) where bears outnumber people, and Chichagof apparently has the highest concentration of bears per square mile on earth. I was a little disappointed we didn’t see one, but our daughter was quite happy to forgo that experience. We did see orcas from shore and humpbacks from the ship. The humpbacks were lunge feeding, which is the first time I’ve seen that behavior in person.

After Icy Straight Point we headed to the Hubbard Glacier in Disenchantment Bay. The glacier was amazing. We’d seen the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau and the Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm on our last trip, but the Hubbard makes them look tiny. It’s also apparently the only glacier in North America that’s still advancing. We had plenty of time at it too, with opportunities to see it calve multiple times.

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We next visited Juneau, where we went zip lining in the tree tops and visited the Mendenhall Glacier again. The zip lining was fun. I’d done it forever ago in grad school, but I’d almost totally forgotten the experience. There were multiple runs in the course, so you got a chance to settle in and enjoy yourself after the first white-knuckle run. The weather was gorgeous too: low 70s with lots of sun. A bit contrast with our last visit, when Juneau was grey and drizzly.

Then it was off to Skagway, where we went horseback riding. The age limit for horseback riding adventures on Disney Cruises is 12 years, so this is the first time our daughter was old enough to do it, and she absolutely wanted to take advantage of that fact. We rode part of the Chilkoot Trail to the Dyea flats, where the gold rush town of Dyea used to be. The weather was windy and drizzly near downtown, but in the Dyea valley it was nearly calm and the rain held off (both of which we were thankful for).

Finally we once again visited Tracy Arm (although technically this time we took the Endicott Arm route). We got there very early (we entered the arm around 4:30 AM), and we had almost no time at the glacier (we pretty much got there and then turned around and headed back out). That’s in strong contrast to our last visit, when we had tons of time to view the glacier. I suspect the difference may be due to the amount of traffic: we saw a number of other boats in the Arm, while on our last visit (which was in mid-August) we didn’t see anyone else the whole time we were in the Arm). The weather was also very different too: very low clouds and drizzle, while last time we had lots of sun. It was actually fun to see the Arm under different conditions, though. And this time there were lots of ice floes in the Arm, which looked bright blue under the cloudy skies. While a bit more time at the glacier would have been nice, most of the fun in Tracy Arm is the trip along the fjord, rather than the glacier itself (particularly after seeing the Hubbard glacier, which was so much bigger).

Then it was back to Vancouver again and flying home. I definitely want to visit again; although we saw lots of whales and bald eagles on the trip, I’d still like to see a bear (from a safe distance). And I’m curious what Alaska is like in the winter. At some point I’d really like to see the Northern Lights…

Project Fi in Vancouver and Alaska

While on vacation I got a chance to test Project Fi coverage in Vancouver and Alaska (including Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, and Hoonah). In Vancouver coverage was great; I reliably had a solid LTE signal. And it was great to be able to draw on the Internet without having to pay extra for international access.

Coverage in Alaska, was pretty spotty. Fi is an overlay on top of Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular, and apparently they don’t cover Alaska very well. I could occasionally get an LTE signal in the middle of town, but much of the time I was lucky to get a 3G signal (in fact, most of the time I could only get a voice signal, not a data one). By contrast, my wife could usually get a pretty solid AT&T LTE signal (although it often seemed to be bandwidth saturated, likely overwhelmed by cruise ship passengers frantically posting photos on social networks).

Verdict so far: if you do travel internationally, Project Fi is awesome. If you plan to move to Alaska, you should probably go with AT&T.

Paying for transit with your phone

We visited Vancouver enroute to Alaska earlier this month, and I finally had a chance to pay for public transit with my phone now that Vancouver’s TransLink accepts mobile payments. And I have to say, it was awesome. No fumbling around trying to figure out how to buy a transit card, no wondering with chip+signature cards will work correctly with machines that too often just work with chip+pin cards. Just walk up to the turnstile, wave your phone, and go. Easiest time I’ve had getting from the airport to my hotel in forever.

Now if Clipper in the Bay Area could just get its act together. Seriously, we’re in Silicon Valley; why do I still have to use a standalone transit card? We have more than a few people around here who could probably help you with that.