Back in Air!

I got my ticket back in 2012, in the San Francisco bay area, while I was on an internship. It was intense, a lot of fun, and probably the most effort I’ve ever put into achieving a single goal in my life, but I’m really happy that I was able to finally get my pilot license. Unfortunately, I ended up moving to the UK not long after that, which was great for my career, but not so good for flying – general aviation in the UK is much less accessible, in terms of cost, licensing, and physical access to airplanes and airports. So I haven’t been flying since.

I decided that needed to change, so I booked 3 weeks off work to spend back in the US, and flying!

The Plan

After a lot of research, I decided to fly with Camarillo Flight Instruction, a flight instruction / rental place with good reviews and a very cheap Diamond DA40, based in a small town outside of Los Angeles. Would totally recommend them, especially for long trips. Feel free to contact me for a more information. Very helpful people and they reserved the plane for me for the 3 weeks I was there, with very reasonable minimum hours.

The Victim

A Diamond DA40!

It has a nice Garmin G1000 avionics system with TIS-B traffic (so FAA Mode-S radar sites will actually tell the plane where everyone else is), a KAP-140 autopilot, and standard range tanks.

I really appreciated having the TIS-B system, since we flew into some of the busiest airspaces in the US on this trip, where the risk of mid-air collisions is very real. It’s no TCAS, and only operates while in range of an FAA radar site (unlike a more advanced active interrogation system that interrogates other aircraft’s transponders directly), but it’s still highly effective especially in terminal areas where it’s most needed. There have been many times where it picked up traffic that blend so well into the background that I would have never seen if I didn’t know they were there.

The Flight Review

I spent the first week with an amazing instructor, Alec Ticherich who basically taught me to fly again. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after such a long break, but as it turned out, I still remembered most of the theory, though the flying has definitely gone rusty, and landings very rusty. The week of dual flights were really helpful – not only am I confident flying again, I’m also pretty sure I am a better pilot now than I used to be.

We visited quite a few local airports on these training flights, including John Wayne – the second busiest airport in the LA area! That was definitely an experience. I had flown into San Jose International before, and even that wasn’t as busy. We also got a nice aerial view of Santa Monica and LAX along the way.

Overflying Los Angeles International
John Wayne
Santa Monica
Los Angeles. People, people, and more people.

I also got some cloud flying time! Flying by instruments has additional certification requirements for both the pilot and the airplane. I don’t have the training to do it myself, and have never done it before with instructors because the plane I flew before wasn’t IFR-certified. With previous instructors I’ve trained with we have always just cancelled flights if the conditions don’t look favourable. Here apparently they don’t cancel flights… we just get an instrument departure to go above the clouds, do what we need to do up there, and come back on an instrument approach. I’m very happy to finally have some experience flying in clouds (safely, with an instructor), and it was actually quite a bit easier than I imagined it would be with the G1000. It’s just like playing a video game!

Above the clouds. Gloomy overcast below, sunny above!
Like playing a video game!
Mountains blocking stratus clouds from the marine layer from moving into the central valley
Flying between layers

KCMA → KSQL

Flight log

My partner joined me at this point, but we weren’t able to leave on the day we planned due to a low overcast over the region thanks to the famous California marine layer. On the second day it still wasn’t clear, but it was becoming broken at 2500 ft, and the sky is clear over Santa Clarita, which was only about 10 minutes away. So we took off on our first flight into the San Francisco bay area. We decided to go to San Carlos Airport because it’s the closest small-plane-friendly airport to downtown San Francisco! It’s a very busy airspace, but I wasn’t too worried since I got my initial training at KRHV not too far south, so I was already reasonably familiar with the airspace and procedures. We decided to fly up to Livermore (see flight log link above) before turning into the bay area, to limit how much time we have to spend at low altitude avoiding SFO Class B airspace (Class B airspaces are airspaces protecting the busiest airports in the US, like SFO in this case, and they often don’t let us in if they are too busy).

The marine layer overstaying its welcome

We picked up flight following on departure (ATC providing advisory service to aircraft flying visually, on workload-permitting basis), and weather was as expected – we had to fly at about 2000 ft for a few minutes until we got to the clearing in the sky. We lost contact with ATC for a few minutes because we were blocked by hills. However, we were still able to hear airliners overhead talking to them, so we knew that if we did get into an emergency, we can get one of the airliners to relay a mayday call, and that’s always reassuring. We re-established contact a few minutes later once we were able to climb higher to cross the mountains near Fillmore.

Bye Camarillo!

Most of the rest of the flight consisted of a 215nm (~1:45) long straight leg flown by our R2-D2 KAP-140 autopilot. There wasn’t much going on in the central valley, but things got exciting again once we were handed off to NorCal Approach, and started our descent into the San Francisco area. As it turned out, they completely redrew the San Francisco Class B airspace since the last time I flew there! They were as busy as I remembered, but watching our navigation screen closely to not violate any airspace, we overflew Fremont, crossed the bay, and was handed over to San Carlos tower. We spotted the airport a bit late, and needed to do a steep descent (averaging about 1000 ft/min, according to the log), but we touched down right at the numbers and stopped with half of the 2600 ft runway remaining according to GPS track.

Being passenger in the front seat. Jesus is my copilot.
Into the Bay Area!

And then things got exciting again… and not in a good way. I was pretty happy with how the flight went, with a first time nervous passenger and all, and let my guard down while we taxi-ed to parking… and ended up under-estimating the length of our wings, and scraped the wing of another plane. Oops!

There wasn’t even a scratch visible, but a bunch of people were contacted, and a mechanic inspected at the wings (due to the wings being composite, which can potentially sustain damage with no visual sign on the surface), and fortunately there wasn’t any damage and both planes were still safe to fly. Could have gone much worse. Amusingly, I wasn’t the only one to taxi into a parked plane this month.

I taxied very carefully since.

KSQL → KMFR

Flight log

After 3 touristy days in SF, we hopped on an Uber and were soon back in San Carlos for our flight north. We were planning to go all the way to Portland in one day, but we departed a bit late, and were only able to make it to our fuel stop, Medford, by the time sunset rolled around.

We were also hoping to get a San Francisco Class B transition (clearance to fly through a controlled airspace without landing) so we can overfly downtown and see the Golden Gate bridge from above. Well, it turned out that departing on a Saturday afternoon is not conducive to getting a clearance – we were advised by San Carlos ATIS that SF transitions weren’t available because they were too busy. That meant we had to duck under their airspace and depart the way we came in – going east through Livermore. As soon as we were out of the SF area, we climbed to 8500 ft and headed straight for Redding. This is a bit of a nostalgic flight for me – my very first solo cross-country flight was from KRHV (Reid-Hillview in Santa Clara) to KCIC (Chico), and I took almost exactly the same route!

The flight to Redding was easy… and then we had to cross the mountains. Conventional mountain flying wisdom says it would be less bumpy if we flew in the valleys instead of over the mountains, but we would lose radio and radar coverage in that case, and without survival equipment on-board, that’s not really ideal. We would also lose our traffic advisory system since that relies on having radar coverage. Instead, we chose safety over comfort and overflew the mountains at 8500 ft. We still followed roads and valleys, though, and I was looking for potential emergency landing sites the whole time. There were quite a few airports and many lakes, so I think we would have been fine if the fan stopped, given the very fine weather this time of the year. We were handed over from Oakland Center to Cascade Approach while we were over the mountains, but we weren’t able to establish contact with Cascade until we popped out on the other side 20 minutes later! We were able to establish radio contact then, but they said we were still intermittent on their radar.

656BC, Cascade Approach, radar contact 3 miles… ah you just dropped off the radar again… oh you’re back!

Mount Shasta
A virga – rain falling from clouds and evaporating before hitting the ground.
Descending into Medford through a valley. TAWS (Terrain Awareness and Warning System) telling us we will crash into mountains if we turned in any direction.

We landed at Rogue Valley International Airport in Medford – pretty quiet for an airport that’s the third busiest in Oregon (busiest airport in Oregon is Portland International – our next stop)! We parked with Million Air FBO. No fees with fuel purchase, and the nice lady at the reception called all over town to find us a hotel last minute at about 50% discount, and drove us there in a very fancy van.

Runway 32
Rogue Valley International Airport. Space, space, and more space.

KMFR → KPDX

Flight log

We departed for Portland the next morning. There are quite a few airports in the Portland area that would probably be easier to fly into, but I’ve always wanted to fly into PDX (Portland International) since they were reportedly very friendly for small airplanes. I thought it would be a fun challenge, and it actually turned out to be quite a bit easier than I imagined it would be.

We departed Medford and followed the Cascade mountains all the way up to Portland. It was an easy flight from the southern end of Oregon to the northern end, and we were on flight following all the way into Portland.

United Flight 1513 (San Francisco to Eugene) on approach into EUG, overtaking us from below.
This is the closest call on our trip. We manoeuvred to avoid N3817D (a Cessna 182). I never actually saw them with our Mark I Eyeball because they were 1300 ft below, climbing into us on a collision path. They probably didn’t see us either because C182 has a high wing, and since they were a 1957 model it’s unlikely that they would have equipment that allowed them to see us on a screen. We’d like to think Cascade Approach would have told us about them at some point, but they were awfully close, and we didn’t get a traffic advisory by the time we started manoeuvring to avoid them. Since they have a registration on TIS-B, they were probably on flight following, too (or IFR).

Less than two hours later we entered Portland class C airspace and began our descent into PDX. Portland Approach told us to expect Runway 28R, which, from my research, is the runway they use for most general aviation flights because the FBO is right next to 28R, at the A3 intersection. Coming in from the south, our approach instructions were to overfly the field at or above 1500, and join right base for 28R. I tried to fly the approach as fast as I could (about 140 kt), because I thought they would have to merge us in with airliner traffic on final. That turned out to be unnecessary, as the only other traffic was an arrival on the parallel runway. It did make an interesting energy management challenge, though. Losing 1500 ft and about 140 kt from base turn isn’t that easy on a DA40 with those nice glider wings! Big slipping 270 degrees turn all the way (at a safe angle of attack to make sure we don’t stall and spin) got us to the runway, wheels on pavement just past the numbers.

Ross Island, on approach into Portland
PDX Runway 28R

We turned off the runway at A3 intersection, and were marshalled to parking on the Atlantic ramp, among all the private jets. We were definitely the smallest airplane there! Seems like everyone and their dog has a private jet there.

Marshalled into parking.
Our parking neighbours.
On the other side. Can you spot us?

We secured the airplane and walked into the palace they call FBO, and got a taste of the world of private jet travel… this is the fanciest FBO I’ve ever visited. Quite a big change from the FBOs I’m used to with an honesty box for parking fees outside, self-serve fuel, and the airport security code taped to the door.

The very nice FBO.
Atlantic FBO (Photo credit: Atlantic)

They charged us $15 security fee + $20 overnight parking, which I thought was very reasonable for a place like PDX (there’s also a handling charge if you don’t buy enough fuel).

Hi, can I have an avgas top-up for 656BC please? Probably about 20.
20 thousand?
No, 20 gallons.

KPDX → KBFI

Flight log

The next day we departed for Seattle, our last stop of this trip before turning back.

The departure from PDX was pretty interesting. We had to call Clearance Delivery first because it’s a Class C airport (*1), and a very helpful line technician told us that there is no run-up area next to the runways, and we should do our run-up on their ramp before calling anyone.

N656BC, readback correct, contact ground ready to taxi, and confirm you are a Twin Star?

This seems to be a common theme at PDX. Everyone thinks we have more and bigger engines than we actually do.

*1: You get an simplified CRAFT-style clearance, where they give you a departure heading, altitude, departure frequency, and squawk code. This is presumably because otherwise tower wouldn’t be able to release you until you are out of the class C airspace, since you would immediately be violating the airspace then (in class C and not having two-way contact with ATC). Tower will hand you off to departure on take-off, and you will already be on flight following.

Ground got us to taxi to 28R behind a Delta, I thought we were going to go after them, and finally get to practice wake turbulence takeoff procedure… But no, they told the Delta to line up and wait, and gave us an intersection takeoff in front of them with a turn to heading 320 to get out of the way as soon as we’re able. The Delta took off on our tail.

Our chaser.
“In 500 ft, turn right onto taxiway alpha, then use the left lane to turn onto taxiway alpha two, and your destination will be ahead.”
Bye Portland!
On departure.

Approach into Seattle was interesting due to the traffic density, but Seattle approach was very nice, and we were handed off to Boeing Tower at the Vashon reporting point (northern end of the Vashon island). Boeing is one of those airports with a bunch of local VFR procedures that aren’t published anywhere, so we asked for headings to fly, and they were very happy to give us headings. I found that to be a nice and stress-free technique for all involved at airports with complicated local procedures. I only need to dial the heading into the autopilot, and not have to worry about looking for landmarks. On the controller side, they can tell me exactly where to go, and they know I’m not going to suddenly decide to turn in random directions. We got in on 14R, and parked with Kenmore, which from my research is where most small pistons park. No fees with fuel purchase, and they have all the basic facilities and refreshments.

Vashon Island.
Seattle downtown up ahead.
Boeing Field Runway 14R. 737 Maxs chilling on the right on the Boeing ramp :D.
At our parking. Waiting for the SR22 to get out of the way (can’t see it in the photo, but they had just started their engine). Not going to taxi into them this time!

KBFI → KS03

Flight log

After a few days of Seattle weather and Nirvana, we headed back to the airport under a 3500 ft overcast. Not ideal, but doable, given that the terrain is flat, the weather is forecasted to improve, and there were plenty of airports to land at if things turned south. Flying at such a low altitude does mean the plane won’t be as fuel efficient, but we did carry a bit more fuel than we need, and the sky cleared up shortly after we went past Portland, so we were able to climb to 8500 ft then.

Overcast at 3500 ft
Clouds finally becoming sparse enough that I am comfortable climbing through a hole to go over.
That’s a lot of traffic near Portland and Hillsboro.

ATC was very busy and Seattle Approach wasn’t able to provide VFR advisory services until we were out of the area. Very happy with G1000’s traffic information system – would have been a slightly scary flight out of Seattle given the traffic density and not talking to ATC.

We decided to stop for the night in Ashland, a very scenic small town with a small uncontrolled airport just south of Medford. Why Ashland? Well, it’s conveniently located just before the crazy part of the Cascade mountains, and my intel indicated that it’s a pretty place for a fuel stop.

Ashland Municipal Airport

What my intel didn’t tell me though, was that it’s 4th July the next day, and apparently that’s a pretty big deal. We don’t have anything like that in any of the countries I’ve lived in, so we got caught a bit off guard (Canada does have Canada Day, but it’s not quite as crazy). It was interesting to experience some of the American-style patriotism.

We did not book hotel in advance because we didn’t know if we would be flying or not that day, and it was only on the way there that we realised most of the hotels were fully booked (my partner checked on the phone when we had cell coverage – not very often at 8500 ft!). I decided to continue to Ashland anyways, because we had a plane, and there’s always the option of just taking off again to find another town if we can’t find a hotel. Fortunately we did end up finding a hotel with vacancy, and it’s the prettiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in!

KS03 → KMFR

Flight log

Shortest leg of the trip – 10 minutes flight time.

We had a lazy morning in Ashland and had a nice walk around town before heading to the airport. Tried to use the self-serve fuel pump… and it was broken.

So we were in a bit of a situation. We landed the night before with just over 10 gallons left in the tanks. At our cruise setting that’s just over 1 hour. FAA’s legal minimum fuel reserve is 30 minutes for the kind of flying we were doing, but I don’t really feel comfortable cutting it that close, and always aim to have at least 1 hour of fuel in the tanks.

That’s why we decided to turn back and backtrack a bit to Medford (KMFR) for fuel instead of continuing on our way and find an airport along the way, since that would involve flying into the mountains with 1 hour of fuel… not a very good idea.

We were in Medford 10 minutes later with low fuel warning in one of the tanks coming on as we landed, and got some fuel from Million Air (who we parked with on our way up a few days earlier). Being a full service provider at a larger airport, they didn’t have the cheapest fuel, but they were the closest, and hence safest option. After all, fuel exhaustion is by far the most common cause of engine failures in flight, and that’s not a statistics I want to be a part of.

Fuel at shutdown. About 50 minutes of reserve at cruise speed. Still very much legal, but this is the lowest fuel level I’ve ever seen.

Fuelling took a while because apparently their pump broke, too (?!), and they had to figure out how to pump the fuel manually…

KMFR → KMCE

Flight log

After our little unplanned excursion, we headed back towards the mountains and into California.

This time we decided to cross the mountains at 11,500 ft indicated. It was actually closer to 12,000 ft according to GPS, because we were using altimeter settings from Medford, and apparently the mountains had about 0.5 inHg higher atmospheric pressure at the time. On the flight log you can actually see the indicated altitude start deviating from the GPS altitude as we entered the mountains (Klamath National Forest)!

Near Mount Shasta

We decided to go so high because we lost radio and radar contact on the way up at 7,500 ft, and I didn’t want that to happen again. We did manage to maintain radar and radio contact with ATC this time through the mountains.

Of course, flying high is not without disadvantages. At 12,000 ft, air has about 40% less oxygen (partial pressure of oxygen, in more technical terms) than at sea level. We were monitoring our blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter. They are very useful for high altitude flying without supplemental oxygen, but as with all tools, it’s also important to know their limitations – they are much less accurate below 70% saturation or so, can be affected by extreme temperatures, and hyperventilating will make it show a higher number while actually exacerbating hypoxia (because hyper-ventilation takes oxygen away from the brain, and into extremities).

At this altitude my saturation fluctuated between about 85% and 90%, while my partner’s stayed near 90% (women tend to have higher SpO2). 90% is where I start thinking about hypoxia. 65% is where very significant mental impairment starts, and at 55% people lose consciousness (source). Keeping in mind that pulse oximeters become wildly inaccurate below 70% (most specify that their rated accuracy is only from 70% to 100%), 80% is probably about as low as I would go.

A few hours of amazing scenery later, we arrived at Merced, CA for our fuel stop – a small uncontrolled airport with a self-serve pump (that works).

Back in California. All flat!
At the pit stop. Merced Regional Airport.

KMCE → KCMA

Flight log

Our last leg took us back to Camarillo, arriving just after sunset (but before the end of twilight, which is when the FAA definition of “night” starts, so no rules were broken!). Beautiful arrival into CMA, but both my cameras have died at this point, so unfortunately not many pictures!

Crossing our last bit of mountains back to Camarillo (photo credit: Steph, my partner).
Camarillo at sunset (photo credit: Steph).
Back in Camarillo. First time I’ve been able to actually see our own landing lights.
Unloading. I’ll miss you, N656BC! Maybe we’ll meet again in another few years.

On this trip we covered a total distance of 1910 nautical miles (2198 statute miles), and 15 hours in air. The same trip by car would have taken about 35 to 40 hours, depending on traffic.

We returned the plane, spent a few more days in LA, and headed back to London. No more flying for me for a while, but now I am thinking about taking advantage of my recently re-gained proficiency to get that glider license I started working on ages ago…

Departing LAX. Felt a bit weird to be on an airplane and not flying it…

Seville (Naboo?)

When I go to big cities I am always a bit stressed, because there are always more things to do than I can fit into my schedule, and that makes traveling a bit unpleasant. It may seem like a good problem to have, but if I am stressed about having to see everything, doesn’t that defeat the whole point of traveling?

I am at a point in my life where I can really use some down time to reflect on recent happenings, so I intentionally picked a place that’s not quite as busy as other places I’ve been to in the past – Seville!

Not quite as popular or well-known as places like Barcelona or even Madrid, but it’s still a city with magnificent architecture, epic stories of cultural clashes and conquests, religions, and art. A lot of art.

Many famous operas were set in Seville, and they serve as testimonies to its beauty. To name a few among a dozen – Carmen, Marriage of Figaro, Barber of Seville (where the Bugs Bunny theme song came from), and Don Juan.

The city is also an enduring record of the clashes between the Moors (Muslims from North Africa) and Catholics in the 8th century, and as a result the architectural style is a unique blend of Jewish (came with the Moors), Gypsy (also came with the Moors), Muslim, and Catholic. Often in the same buildings as well, and that’s super cool!

Also, circumstances dictate that I travel by myself again, so I’m back to meeting strangers! Like last time, I’m going to number them in this post instead of giving their names – both in order to protect the innocent, and also because I am shit with names.


The hostel is nicely nestled in the middle of Santa Cruz, a labyrinth of narrow alleys that make up the medieval Jewish quarter of Seville.

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It all looks very confusing, but for some reason, I can always manage to find my way back to the hostel without a map if I just follow my instinct. Maybe my brain decided to grow some grid cells?

The hostel is a bit anti-social with everyone doing their own things (like me on my laptop typing this post…), but the decorations are interesting, and there’s free dinner!

img_20161110_181607 img_20161110_193718

img_20161110_220904I love hostels with free dinners! Dinners are amazing for bringing people together and getting people to start talking. And talk we did.

Dutch girl #1 used to live in Brussels doing spreadsheets for an insurance company, but decided that’s too boring and went to live in Australia for a few months, and met Australian guy #1, and they started dating. They now travel all over the world as nomads. How cool is that?!

Belgian girl #1 also works in Brussels, and after a few moments of confusion, established that she actually works at the same insurance company that Dutch girl #1 worked at. They did not know each other.

She also speaks perfect English, despite English being her 4th language. Belgian people are amazing.

American girls #1 and #2 were from Chicago and Michigan, and they are on an exchange program, spending a semester at a university in Madrid, while teaching English for 4 euros/hour (that’s not survivable even by Spanish standards). They are doing some traveling before going back to the States, and they both speak Spanish really well! I really need to work on my Spanish. Being only bilingual is getting a bit old, when everyone I meet at hostels are at least trilingual.

Canadian guy #1 is a mechanical engineer from London, Ontario, working for General Dynamics. We mostly just geeked out and talked about mechanical engineering shit that I assume most of my readers aren’t terribly interested in, but he did tell me how a friend of his in the bio-med field mentioned to him that there’s this simple device many research labs pay thousands of $s for that he (and even I) can build in a few days for about $200, and he is going to launch a startup to take advantage of that. I don’t want to say too much about it since I’m not sure if he wants more people to know, but as an engineer, I’ve had lots and lots of people pitch their startup/project ideas to me, and I found most of them BS in some way. Not this one. This one is actually cool.

Norwegian guy #1 is a vet working in a research lab at a university in Madrid doing research in animal nutrition. I don’t remember what he works on exactly, but it’s impressive.


There are wars and power struggles in the history of every city, and while in northern/western parts of Europe the big war is usually WWII, here it happened centuries earlier – between Muslims and Catholics. This results in interesting architecture. For example, La Giralda, one of the most symbolic icons of the city used to be a minaret – a Muslim tower for prayers. Now it’s in the middle of Catedral de Sevilla – the largest Gothic cathedral in the world… which used to be a mosque.

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The cathedral itself is huge, but not really impressive otherwise. Looks like someone had a few crates more gold than they knew what to do with, and just poured it all over this place.

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The tower is amazing though!

The way up is a very very very long ramp. It’s a ramp instead of steps because the imam had to go up 5 times a day, and the imam was usually a very old guy. With a ramp he could ride a donkey up. DONKEY! UP A TOWER!!

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I am not the proud owner of a donkey, so I walked. And walked. And walked. 20 minutes later… bird’s-eye view of Seville!

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How amazing would it be if I could jump off with a paraglider or something?


To be continued… (spoiler: I did not jump)

Polyamory

You are walking on a 100-metre long trail, and there is a pebble every metre. When you encounter a pebble, you can choose to pick it up or leave it. If you pick it up, the game is over, and you get to keep the pebble. If you leave it, you cannot go back to it later.

Your goal is to get the largest pebble. What’s your optimal strategy?

This is the famous secretary problem in decision theory.


Monogamy feels a lot like the secretary problem to me – you encounter a more or less fixed number of potential partners over your relationship forming year, and you have to pick one without being able to peek ahead, and you can’t go back to potential partners you have passed over.

Does that make much sense to you? It doesn’t really to me.

Does loving a person really turn off our capability to love another person? It doesn’t for me, and judging by the number of “monogamous” people who cheat, I don’t think it’s just me.

Love is just a more intense form of friendship. We can have multiple best friends and no one has trouble understanding that. Why do we have to be so selfish with love? Why can’t we just love everyone we want to love?

Why do romantic relationships have to be formed and broken with so much deliberate effort? Why can’t they evolve organically just like friendships?

Those are questions I’ve had for many many years (in fact, I believe I wrote a blog post about this back in 2010 or something). Questions that I never found satisfactory answers to, and as a result, I mostly just refrained from dating.

Until recently, that is. I came across the concept of polyamory a few months ago, and have been reading up on it since. Everything just makes sense!

If you are not familiar with polyamory – it’s a relationship model where each person can have multiple partners, but with the knowledge and blessing of all partners involved (this is a huge over-simplification – there at least as many different kinds of poly relationships as there are mono relationships).

Is it for me? I don’t know. It makes perfect sense on paper, but I don’t know how my brain will actually react.

There’s the practical aspect as well – my friend who did give it a try didn’t find it worthwhile, due to the effort required to maintain multiple relationships. As a famous poly saying goes: “Love is infinite, but time and energy aren’t.”

In any case, if I do actually go into poly, it will probably end up being a mono-poly sort of arrangement with me on the mono side… I barely have enough time for one person!


So, what’s the solution to the secretary problem?

As it turned out, there is an elegant mathematical solution – the optimal strategy is to skip over the first n/e pebbles, and then take the first one that is bigger than all you have seen.

n is the number of candidates, and e is the base of natural logarithm (e ~= 2.72).

For example, in the case of 100 pebbles, that means you should skip over the first 100/2.72 = 37 pebbles, and then take the first one that’s bigger than all of the first 37 pebbles.

See the Wikipedia page for proof.

 

2015 in Review

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. – Steve Jobs

2015 was about answering “yes” to that question unhealthily often. It was a good year.

I quitted my job last year to do an MSc in London, but it was mostly just an excuse to spend a year living in a new country, and ticking a few more things off my list of things to do before I die. That turned out to be a very good decision.

I am finally at a point in life where if you tell me I am going to die today, and ask me what I wish I could have done but never did, I would have to think long and hard about it.

Gliding

In the first half of the year, I finally got into gliding with the Imperial College Gliding Club. It’s something I have always wanted to do being a powered airplane pilot, and I’m happy to report that it did not disappoint. We went on quite a few trips to the local airfield (Lasham), as well as a week-long trip to Long Mynd over the Christmas holidays, where we flew an unhealthy amount, and got to try out a really cool launch method. See this post for videos and photos.

thermalling

I didn’t end up getting licensed in gliding because gliding is very time-consuming (whole days at the airfield), and unfortunately time is one of the things I don’t have a lot of… it was still amazing, though!

SCUBA Diving

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Thanks to all the fine people in the Imperial College Underwater Club, I was also able to get certified in scuba diving! It was a bit cold, but everyone in the club, especially the instructors, were absolutely amazing! It’s something I definitely plan to keep doing. Somewhere warm?

Judo

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I got orange! I probably should have gotten it a long time ago, if only I didn’t switch dojo every few months.

What’s more important though, is what I learned. I felt like I really made quite a bit of progress in my understanding of Judo this year. I am much more relaxed now when I go into a fight, and can more accurately use my opponents’ force against themselves, which is really what Judo should be about. My fighting style is now much more reactionary (that sounds like a bad thing, but it really isn’t). Instead of always initiating and trying attacks from stable positions, I am starting to be able to let the opponent attack first, recognize weaknesses in their movements or balances, before moving in to attack. That made Judo a whole lot more fun.

Still have lots and lots to learn. Looking forward to another year of Judo!

Musicals!

Imperial College subsidizes musical tickets through the Art Society, and we were able to get tickets to most West End shows for less than £30.

Living in Vancouver, I am used to only be able to watch musicals when they go on tours, and it’s often necessary to book half a year in advance. Living close to West End was really nice. I could watch pretty much anything I wanted, and only had to book a few days in advance.

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It was amazing.

Woodworking

I was in desparate need of an excuse to travel outside of my room during the thesis writing period, so I decided to join a week-long full time course on woodworking and furniture making.

It’s something I have always wanted to learn. I am into DIY and I would say I am pretty good at DIYing electronics stuff (maybe having a degree in that helped?), but I have always sucked at making mechanical stuff, so this was an attempt to fix that.

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We each built a coffee table! I was surprised how much we learned in just one week.

Can’t wait to start building more stuff!

Also, sawing wood is therapeutic.

Backpacking

There was supposed to be a graduation trip, then everyone else bailed. So I ended up going backpacking on my own. It ended up being a whole lot more fun than I ever imagined!

I took about a month to visit Lisbon, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest, staying in hostels and meeting new people every day. I was a bit apprehensive at first, and wasn’t sure if travelling by myself would be a good idea, but it turned out to be probably my best decision of the year!

I wouldn’t go as far as calling it self-discovery, but I did discover a very fun way to travel, and met tons of really cool people and heard tons of really cool stories.

My travel log, if anyone is interested:

Solo Eurotrip, Prelude

Solo Eurotrip, Lisbon Part 1

Solo Eurotrip, Lisbon Part 2

Solo Eurotrip, Prague Part 1

Solo Eurotrip, Prague Part 2

Solo Eurotrip, Vienna Part 1

Solo Eurotrip, Vienna Part 2

Solo Eurotrip, Budapest

Degree, Piece of Paper, and Being (Briefly) Famous

Oh yeah, and I worked on an MSc degree on the side, and got another piece of paper.

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I also discovered my love for machine learning after taking the introductory course, and ended up doing a machine learning project for my thesis… and that’s where the fun started.

I posted my thesis on arXiv, and it was miraculously picked up by MIT Technology Review, which started my approximately 3 weeks of fame. It was reported on by quite a few tech and even mainstream media, and I started getting 10-20 emails from random strangers every day about the project, or their new hot startup. That was unexpected.

It was pretty fun in the beginning, because I am passionate about machine learning, and loved talking about the project. But over time, it became pretty consuming, when I realized I was spending 2 hours a day responding to emails.

I always thought ignoring emails is rude and that I would never do it. Then I started doing it, because there’s just no other way. I couldn’t really afford to spend hours replying to emails everyday. Wouldn’t be able to get anything else done! On the bright side, I am much faster at writing emails now. I’m sure it will be a useful skill later.

The fame left just as quickly as it had come. I was back to my normal level of emails within a few weeks. That’s good. No more feeling guilty about ignoring emails!

One good thing did come out of this whole ordeal, though – a job!

Google DeepMind

Having read a few of their papers during my research, I was really impressed by what they were doing. I didn’t apply there, though, because I thought it was way out of my league, being one of the most famous machine learning labs in the world.

One of their research scientists saw my paper on arXiv, and got me in contact with their recruiter!

We then had a series of Google Hangouts interviews with a bunch of people, including a research scientist, a PM, their research engineering lead, an engineering lead, and one of the founders!

It was a pretty gruelling process totalling to about 10 hours of Hangouts, but although they were all heavy weights in the industry, they were also all very nice and down to earth people, and I really enjoyed talking to them.

It was also a bit scary how smart they are. We talked about my project in one of the interviews with a research scientist. He hadn’t read about it before, and as soon as I am done describing it (it wasn’t a trivial project), he was able to immediately offer a few very helpful insights and things to try, and things to think about. Those are things I never thought of, and I spent a few hours a day working on the project for a few months. That was cool.

I also really enjoyed talking to the founder about more high level ideas in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Really cool insights on how they believe ML will play out in the future, about the nature of intelligence, and possible routes to achieve artificial general intelligence. I don’t think I’m allowed to disclose the details, but it was cool. How often do you get to talk to a founder of a company like DeepMind about AI for half an hour? Not very often for me!

I got an offer in the end!

Next

I didn’t originally plan on returning to the UK, but hey, I am used to making last minute decisions on where to live, and Google isn’t half bad :).

Looks like I’ll be flying back to London next week, and also shipping all my stuff over… most of which I just shipped out of London a few months ago… at least someone else is paying for the shipping this time!

I am not going to write about what I plan to do this year, because looking at my past predictions, it seems like I am terrible at making plans. I do hope it will be as exciting as this year, though!

Love of a Woman?

Who’s got time for that?! 🙂

Sidenote: I decided to try OkCupid recently at a dear friend’s suggestion. After all, I am a machine learning guy. Why not trust machine learning to solve this?

Did not work very well. I don’t like the shotgun approach, so after going through tons of profiles of potential matches, I only sent messages to 2 women. No reply. I do understand that women get a lot of messages on OkCupid, but if I have to write 10 thoughtful messages to get 1 reply… who’s got time for that?!

I am not sure why it worked well for my friend but not me. My guess is it’s because in addition to being very intelligent and humorous, she also happens to be highly conventionally attractive. I did not work as hard and was not as gifted :).

I guess that means it’s back to real world dating for me. Hopefully I’ll have more time this year? Apparently a lot of people (especially men) choose online dating because they are too shy to talk to women. I am not. I have no trouble talking to anyone. I just don’t have the time. Arghhh.

In any case, if you are interested in what a Unsuccessful Application for the Affection of Women looks like, here it is.

By the way, the OkCupid blog is very cool. Lot’s of data analysis and making inferences from data.

Solo Eurotrip, Budapest

Armed with the gift of the last of a book of 10 transit tickets from Japanese guy #1 and some amazing kebab from the Vienna Westbahnhof, I boarded the bus to Budapest (not using the ticket… the ticket is for intra-city travel only).

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It wasn’t a very comfy ride, but hey, international buses aren’t supposed to be comfy. These are not the buses you take to be comfy. These are the buses you take because you need to go from one city to another, and you want to do it as cheaply as possible, and don’t want to be robbed on the way (that rules out hitchhiking).

At least I got a first row seat?

Sitting next to me was Unknown girl #1. Did not attempt to talk to her because she had earphones in most of the time (which is the internationally recognized personal door sign for “don’t talk to me”), and also she didn’t seem like a tourist. I didn’t know if she spoke German or Hungarian, but I don’t speak either anyways.


One thing I love about this kind of travel is that you can almost get away with not doing any planning at all. Hostel hosts are usually very friendly people, and can tell you all you will ever want to know about the place.

I usually just plan for getting to the hostel, and leave the rest till I get there.

I stayed at Budapest Bubble. If you read the reviews on HostelWorld, you’d notice that they all mention this mysterious woman by the name of Anna.

Anna is one of the 2 people running the hostel, and she is amazing.

As soon as I arrived, she sat me down, gave me a map, and spent about half an hour telling me all about the city – fun places to visit, cool things to see, etc, and drew a very very detailed overlay on the map – where to buy stuff, historical landmarks, historical stuff, where to eat, where the bath houses are… everything! No independent research necessary! I wish I had taken a picture of the map. Alas, I didn’t :(.

It was a very small hostel converted from an apartment. On this trip I have stayed in hostels with hundreds of beds, as well as very small hostels with only a few beds like this one. I can’t decide which kind I like more. Bigger hostels usually means better facilities, and more people available for meeting (so you can be more picky), whereas small hostels are usually cozier and you get to see the same people more often.

There were about 5 other people staying at the hostel at that time, and most of them decided to go pub crawling on my first night. I didn’t end up going because I wanted to actually get up early to explore the city… pubs are the same pretty much anywhere, right?

So I ended up staying behind, and just talked to Anna for a few hours. I love talking to hostel hosts. They are usually local, are knowledgeable about local stuff (because they are in the tourism “industry”), and speak English! It’s otherwise pretty difficult to get to know locals in cities like Budapest, where very few locals speak English (or any other language I understand… I need a C-3PO).

Apparently Hungarian is so hard to learn that knowing Hungarian is usually seen as a major accomplishment. Most European languages are from either the West Germanic family (German, Dutch, English), or the Romance family (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian), and they usually have enough common features or even vocabulary that if you know one language in the family, it’s relatively easy to guess stuff in other languages in the family. Hungarian is from a family known as Uralic languages (according to Wikipedia) which also includes Finnish and Estonian. It’s so different from English that although they also use Latin alphabet, I couldn’t guess a single word.

Anna had a t-shirt that says “I speak Hungarian. What’s your superpower?”

She was studying to be a kindergarten teacher, and shared a few stories from her practicum, mostly about kids fighting etc… and apparently running a hostel isn’t that much different from teaching in a kindergarten. Most of the time people are just drunk, but she said there’s one time a crazy Polish lady kept walking around the common area with a knife, and arguing with herself…


Next few days were all raining. Hard. I guess it wasn’t TOO bad that I didn’t get much rain till the final city on my trip? The rain sucked, though, and I didn’t end up getting to explore Budapest much.

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Budapest used to be two cities on two banks of the river (the Danube) – Buda and Pest. Nowadays the hilly Buda side is mostly residential, and most of the touristy places are on the Pest side.

There’s a pretty cool Citadel on the Buda side – a fortress on a hill built by Austrians in the 1800s. Hungarians don’t like it because it was built using Hungarian forced labour. When the Austrians left the walls were destroyed, and it’s now a touristy area, offering a good view of the Pest side of the city… when it’s not incredibly rainy and foggy.

I didn’t have a map with me, so I had to rely on a picture of the very helpful diagram on a sign at the foot of the hill.

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No idea what the words meant. Probably just something very important.

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At the top of the hill. Good reward for an hour of climbing –

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At this point it started raining hard, so I ran back towards civilization, while taking a shower. Food!

This is the Central Market Hall (“Nagyvásárcsarnok”). It is the biggest market in Budapest, and is actually frequented by locals (though there are also many tourists now).

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Bottom floor has a lot of fresh produce, and top floor is almost like a very big food court.

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It was incredibly crowded during feeding time, but the food is good and cheap!

Ok, it’s probably expensive by Hungarian standards, but still cheap by Western standards.

I had this –

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It’s stuffed chicken/duck/something leg. No idea how they made it, but there’s mashed-potatoes-like stuff between the skin and the meat. It was awesome!

Another popular Hungarian dish is the beef goulash (beef soup/stew). There is a famous German dish with the same name, but it’s quite different from the Hungarian version from what I heard. The dish originated from Hungary way back in the days. No pictures because it was too yummy.

Castle? Castle.

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And that’s more or less it… unfortunately. There was a continuous torrential downpour for the next 2 days, so I just packed up, took the bus back to Vienna, and flew back.

It’s a bit sad that such an epic trip ended in such an un-epic way, but I guess not having any rain until this point was more than what I could have asked for already.

Until next time!

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