Blog: Entries From 2013

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Hiking and Otherwise - Monday, January 14, 2013
On January 1, 2013, Priscilla and I did the unthinkable. We hiked Mission Peak in Fremont! Originally we weren't going to even think about Mission Peak till maybe April, but Priscilla one day was all gung-ho and suggested doing something difficult on New Year's Day. I quickly got some RBF people in on the fun, so there was no way Priscilla could back out!

It ended up being the two of us, Judy and her friend Grace, Joe, and Nicole and her mom Nancy. Apparently a lot of other people had the same idea, because parking was very difficult to find in the small lot and on the nearby residential streets! We finally found a spot 5 minute's walk from the lot.

The 2000 foot ascent over 3 miles took about two hours to complete. It was cold and very windy, especially at the top, which I didn't expect. Judy ended up getting sick afterward, which I felt bad about, but she seemed better the next time we saw her. We had a lot of fun getting to know everybody better, and conquering the peak in celebration of the new year!

That Saturday, four days later, Priscilla and I hit up another preserve: Monte Bello OSP in Los Altos. It was also unexpectedly windy, but only near the top of the canyon. We hiked to the summit of Black Mountain, which turned out to be a bit of a letdown, but overall it was a nice hike with a cool view of the tree-filled canyon.

And this past Saturday, the 12th, Priscilla and I hiked in Picchetti Ranch OSP in Cupertino. Man, we're on a roll! Fearing the worst, Priscilla dressed in multiple layers, only to find that it wasn't too windy or cold here. The hike wasn't too difficult, and Picchetti (which has its own winery by the same name) is relatively small, so we continued on the trail that took us into Stevens Creek County Park. We ended up hiking just over 4 miles - not great, but we were in a hurry to get to...

Game day! My officemate Lisa arranged a game day/night with some friends at one person's house in San Jose. There must've been at least 30 games that different people brought. We had 9 people, so we played different games with people alternating between two groups.

I finally got to play San Juan (which we were supposed to play the last couple game nights, but there were always so many other interesting-looking games). I also played Wise and Otherwise, and four rounds of Boggle at the end of the night after pizza. What a fun day this was, and what an interesting year it's been so far!

What else have we done? I went to my first ever baby shower on the 6th, in celebration of Justin and Vicky's soon-to-be first child! Priscilla and I saw The Lion King at the Orpheum Theatre in SF, we had dinner with my uncle and aunt, and we've both been busy looking for new jobs. I had my second on-site interview in five years (first in two years) and have been studying like mad. Hopefully we'll stay productive and be able to say at the end of 2013 that we had an awesome year of learning, growing and serving.
Goodbye, Applied Signal - Sunday, February 3, 2013
After 5 years and a few days working at what is now Raytheon Applied Signal Technology, it's time to move on! As of this Friday, it's official - I've accepted an offer with a company in Mountain View called Pure Storage, and I've given notice to AST that my last day will be February 22. I'll start at Pure the following Monday, the 25th. In the meantime, I'll naturally be helping to tie up whatever loose ends I can and possibly train whoever will be taking over my role on my current team.

Why the change? Well I'm at that point in my career where I feel like a change would be beneficial for me to grow my experience and work with new technologies. Defense is also an uncertain field to be in right now, with the government cutting defense funding. My previous team was affected by this last year and had to let some engineers go to other teams because of dwindling funding. And sadly, with the acquisition by Raytheon, the environment at AST has slowly turned from personal and employee-centric to impersonal and rigid. Soft benefits like monthly lunches, section lunches, service awards, holiday parties, company-sponsored events, and even the budget for the candy bowl in the lobby have been slashed. Meanwhile, healthcare premiums have gone up, including employees having to pay a good amount in premiums for a high-deductible HSA account which used to carry no premium for the employee.

Things haven't been so great for morale, and walking down the hallways, this is evident by the name signs many people have modified to display only their employee ID number (in reference to the fact that Raytheon changed our logins from our name to said impersonal ID numbers)... a silent protest, if you will. In the past year, I estimate that at least one person I know has left every month on average, an attrition rate that has been unprecedented.

So I'd been applying to companies I found through job boards like Monster and TechCareers. I applied to 15 companies from late November to early December, and 7 in early January. Unfortunately I didn't hear back from most of them, and I think the primary reason was that I was applying to ads that were a few days old, which in this job market usually means that the position's been filled, at least for a smaller company that's not hiring for too many positions.

But along the way, I happened to apply to a recruiting agency (found through Monster), and the recruiter who got in contact with me eventually sent my resume over to Pure Storage. Things progressed rather quickly from there, and though I thought I could've done slightly better in the interview, they were pleased to give me a competitive offer!

Prior to the agency submitting my resume to Pure, I knew nothing of the company. But I did some research and liked what I saw, and apparently they have a Wikipedia page, which is a good sign.

Pure is now a mid-stage startup with around 110 people. They operate on the cutting edge of enterprise-grade flash storage, and their flagship product is a flash array that delivers better performance than spinning disk at a lower cost. Their office is on Castro Street and they have some awesome perks like unlimited vacation days, which encourages people to be responsible, be productive while they're at work, and to take ample time off when they need to. Everybody there seems really bright, and I'll probably be amongst the youngest of people, so I'll have a lot of people to learn from.

I'll definitely miss working with some awesome and bright folks at AST. It was difficult to break the news to my managers and I did so with mixed feelings, but they were pretty understanding. AST was my first company right out of college, and it'll always have a special place in my heart. At the same time, I think I'll really like it at Pure. Not just for the exciting and challenging work, but for the laid back (but hard working) and personal atmosphere. Something that I miss about AST, and something that I've realized is important to me.

A company's bottom line should be its employees, not profits. That's not to say that profits aren't important (because at the end of the day, we all need to get paid and the company needs to have enough left over to keep the lights on and continue growing), but a company that invests in its employees first will know how to retain talent and create a positive working environment that channels into a positive feedback loop. That's the kind of environment that I thrive in. And I'm looking forward to seeing it again!
Cruise to the Bahamas - Wednesday, February 13, 2013
I've always wanted to see the Bahamas. And now I have, thanks to Priscilla's travelholism and her parents generously paying for a cruise to the Bahamas for the four of us.

Last Wednesday, Priscilla and I flew from San Jose to LAX, where we rendezvoused with her parents and caught the red eye flight to our layover at Dallas/Fort Worth, and then the morning flight to Jacksonville, Florida. From there, it was a short shuttle ride to the Port of Jacksonville, where all the cruise ships sail out of. Our ship was the Carnival Fascination, and this was the second time I've sailed with Carnival. Once we passed through the TSA-like security checkpoint (minus full body scanners), we were on the ship and enjoying lunch on the Lido deck.

This time around Priscilla signed up for "your time dining", which gave us more flexibility in allowing us to eat dinner in the fine dining hall on own schedule. The food options were fine indeed - escargot was one of the starter items, and for the main course it was difficult having to choose between the lasagna bolognese, pan-seared tillapia fillet, chicken a la grecque, cinnamon pumpkin and veggie pot pie, or the braised beef briskey in gravy. I finally opted for the chicken, though we ended up ordering a few different main courses and sharing. Sharing is caring!

And how can a night be complete without entertainment? At night we caught the welcome show, where our cruise director Paul gave some introductions and a mini-comedy show. Two other comedians also did short routines, a preview of the longer programs that they would do the rest of the cruise. Fun times.

Friday at noon, we disembarked at Freeport, our first stop in the Bahamas. There wasn't a lot to do in town and we didn't sign up for any shore excursions, so we just walked around the small shopping plaza and Straw Market where there were tons of vendors selling souvenirs catering to tourists. It seemed like the same kind of stuff you could buy anywhere else, minus the logos that read "Bahamas" and whatnot. Priscilla did buy two postcards for herself, and her parents bought a souvenir magnet, but overall the stuff there just didn't interest us.

Not to be deterred, I looked around at our food options - I wanted something authentic. I passed on an authentic-looking (as much as possible) shack selling seafood for exorbitant prices - a $20 fish sandwich wasn't my thing. We passed by a bar that was offering $1 shots, which was cool but their food looked pretty Americanized. Finally, we took a look at the menu of a place called Senor Frog's, a seemingly pretty popular place for tourists. They touted their authentic Mexican food. Wait, Mexican food? I must be in the wrong country! Their menu had things like a fish taco plate for $17 - loco! We had lunch back on the ship.

The attire for fine dining that night was dressy. After dinner, we took advantage of our swanky looks to take photos at the various professional photo stations set up on the venue floors. Finally, we caught a night show called "Divas" in which male and female performers danced and did a cover of many popular diva songs. Two particular performers, both guys, really stood out in their vocals. The show was pretty cool.

Having learned our lesson from Freeport, when Saturday rolled around and our ship docked at Nassau at 8am, we had tickets (purchased through Carnival for $70/person) for a "sea and see" excursion. A short walk into town brought us to a ferry that took us on a harbor tour. We saw mail boats (the method of mail transportation between islands), bridges carrying traffic over the harbor to Paradise Island, and waterfront mansions owned by celebs including Tom Cruise, Chuck Norris and Oprah (who has two properties next to each other).

Our ferry was met out in the water by a semi-submarine and we transferred over for a short sea tour. Our tour guide threw rice overboard to attract fish, and we sure saw a lot of them! Everything from grunt fish, ballyhoo and yellow snapper. We didn't see any sharks, unfortunately.

The third part of our tour was onboard a bus, which took us past Bay Street, the police station, a Methodist church, the Parliament buildings and the Supreme Court. We stopped for 20 minutes at Fort Fincastle and the Queen's Staircase. The bus tour felt pretty short, and we ended earlier than the brochure claimed. Booo.

We then walked through the Nassau Straw Market, stopped at McDonald's to use their WiFi (and bought a crispy chicken sandwich so that we didn't look cheap), and then finished up the afternoon at the free Junkanoo Beach, where we just sat on the shore due to not having swimwear. We didn't eat any real food in Nassau, but we did buy a coconut from a shack at the beach for $5. I liked how they chopped off the shell on one side right in front of us, and stuck a straw in there for us to drink the coconut water. Everybody in the cities we visited accepted U.S. money, and supposedly the Bahamian dollar and the U.S. dollar have a one-to-one exchange rate.

Nassau was interesting. It had a small town feel but did have a steady amount of cars on the street. The buildings aren't dirty but do look worn with time. The aggressiveness of the locals trying to sell taxi, sightseeing and other services kind of put me off. We certainly didn't experience this kind of aggressiveness in Hawaii! Though perhaps that aggressive desire for our business could've been used in our favor as a bargaining tool had we been interested in their services (we might've scored a better deal than we did through Carnival).

Back on the ship after dinner, we briefly visited a piano bar and listened to a really talented guy playing requests from a list. Then we looked at our photos from the night before that were posted in the photo gallery. We were pretty tired after that long day, so we then called it a night.

Sunday was the day at sea. After waking up late and having a light breakfast, we went to a towel-folding session, where we learned how to make some of the towel animals that the cleaning staff had been making and putting in our stateroom every night.

After lunch, Priscilla and I went to a comedy show called "The Game of Love" where our cruise director picked three couples from the audience, two senior couples and one newlywed couple, and asked them questions to see how well they knew each other. The result? Pretty well overall for each couple. The show was hilarious, thanks to our wise-cracking cruise director.

In the evening we caught another show called "Motor City", a dance and musical performance that went through a few decades of oldies music. I liked this one better than "Divas" and loved the singing and all the costume and background changes. I think this show is done by the same performers that did "Divas". They actually had both shows playing that night and Friday night. Mad props to those performers for having to memorize songs and choreography for two different shows in the same night!

Monday morning after breakfast, it was time to debark! The debarkation process was pretty smooth, and most of the time spent waiting (15 minutes?) was waiting to get off the ship. Various shuttles were waiting to take people back to the airport, and we caught one for $10/person. Our flight from Jacksonville to DFW wasn't for another five hours, so I used that time to get caught up on friends' Yelp reviews. Our flight from DFW to San Jose was rough at almost four hours long! We finally got home around 8:30pm and were pretty exhausted.

Overall it was a fun trip, but we could've done more in the Bahamas. I learned that I don't really enjoy stuffy plane rides, and even on a cruise I get restless when there's not much to do. I also gained four pounds temporarily, even though we were going to the gym every day. Just something about being in the midst of so much good food every single day makes me want to eat a lot despite my body telling me to slow down. I don't think I could handle a longer cruise; four days was already plenty. It was fun, but I'm glad to be back home.
From AST to Pure - Friday, March 1, 2013
Last Friday was my last day at AST, and it was a bittersweet day. I made my rounds saying goodbye to the friends I've made over my five years of employment. I had my exit interview with HR at 2pm, but since I was being paid for the whole day, I wanted to get as much work done as possible and work a full day.

Unfortunately, though I requested that AST keep my badge and computer accounts active through the rest of the day, that fact wasn't conveyed up to Raytheon IT which manages the Windows accounts. As I would soon find out, there was a request to have my Windows account deactivated by 5pm, but it was actually done a litle earlier, because some time after 4pm I locked my computer and stepped out, and when I got back I couldn't log back in.

I placed a call to Raytheon IT, but the guy who took my call was powerless to do anything but put in a ticket. The people with the power to unlock my account had gone home, and going by experience, I knew it'd probably be a couple business days before my ticket was even looked at.

Moral of the story: Don't lock your computer on your last day. Or maybe it should be "Go home early on your last day like everybody else does." At any rate, I was able to get into my computer using the local admin account, but since I couldn't access my user account, I couldn't get to my email. I just tied up loose ends as best as I could and had my officemate send my goodbye email on my behalf.

And so, that chapter of my life was closed. Not in the most elegant way possible, but certainly in a memorable one.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with most of my former team at my belated goodbye lunch at Sweet Tomatoes in Mountain View. I didn't want anything special done for me, but Lisa insisted on it, and we agreed to have it this week so that my former manager (who would be in town that day) could make it. Seeing my former coworkers again was really great, even though I'd only been gone for less than a week.

And now, there's Pure Storage, where I started this past Monday. This week has been extremely busy, as I've had no down time at work. Pure follows more or less an agile methodology, and people work long hours (I even see emails bouncing around after midnight) and half-jokingly apologize when they don't work weekends.

For now, I'm on the devtest (development in test) team. I have a mentor who's been helping me get up to speed, and I've been learning a lot, but the learning curve is huge. I've learned enough to start fixing my first issue, a non-destructive upgrade test that's failing because an assumption is broken when installing an older build on a non-blank slate system.

So do I like it at Pure? Indeed. Everybody there has been friendly and helpful, and sometimes other people will chime in when I'm asking somebody for help. The open floor plan definitely makes that possible.

Since Pure is a startup (mid-stage now, I think), there's less process and red tape in place. You get to pick your own keyboard and mouse, which are ordered before your start date. Need a standing desk? Ergotron ordered; almost half of the engineers have one. How should your code get reviewed? In whatever way works best for you. What kind of laptop would you like? We have Windows, Mac and Linux. You can compile your code natively in Windows or do it in a Linux VM.

The free snacks and drinks in the breakroom are also much appreciated. As are the catered lunches that coincide with the weekly company meeting, dinners provided for those working late, and a lunch delivery service where the company pays the delivery cost and tax. Silverware, plates, bowls and cups are provided as well. It all boils down to making things convenient for employees to allow them to be more productive. I'm glad this company recognizes this.

Eventually I'll hope to have a better work-life balance (I don't want to be working so much that I don't get to enjoy life) once I become more experienced, and thereby more efficient. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the work that I'm doing, and I'm glad to be onboard.
Getting Smart - Saturday, March 2, 2013
No, I'm not talking about myself. I'm talking about my phone.

Since Pure Storage gives us a monthly $75 cellphone allowance (they don't provide landlines), I had an excuse to finally get a smartphone. The allowance is just additional money added to my paycheck, which I can choose to spend (or not spend) however I want, but I figured it was finally time to upgrade, since there've been plenty of times I've wished I had a smartphone (95% of those times being me wanting to check into a place to satisfy my Yelp addiction).

That's right, I've held out longer than almost everybody I know, but now I've finally sold out.

So this afternoon Priscilla and I went to a MetroPCS store. I went with Metro because of their low prices ($40/month for the cheapeast plan, taxes and fees included), no contracts, and unlimited usage on all plans. I had picked out the LG Spirit 4G ahead of time due to its low price point ($200 after rebate) and decent features:
The first thing I did with my new phone? Install Yelp, of course.

I can't believe I've had my original AT&T phone, my Samsung Sync, for over 5 years. Thank you my trusted flip phone - you've served me well despite me dropping you numerous times, and how you've lasted on your original battery all this time has truly impressed me. But now it's time for me to move on. It's nothing personal. But sometimes, people realize they need... a bit more in their lives. Know that you'll always have a place in my heart. And, unless I decide to eBay you, a place in my drawer.
Skiing! - Friday, March 22, 2013
If the benefits at Pure Storage weren't awesome enough, last weekend the engineering department went on an all-expenses paid ski trip to Tahoe!

Around 30 of us left on a bus at 10am Friday morning (great excuse to have the day off), and 223 miles and 4 hours later arrived at our hotel - Harveys in South Lake Tahoe. We had the afternoon free, with some people immediately hitting up the hotel casino and lots of others hitting up a couple of the bars in the area. Most of us rejoined for dinner at Base Camp Pizza, a place that has amazingly tasty and fresh pizza!

Everybody received gondola tickets which we used on Saturday at the Heavenly Mountain Resort. Those not skiing took the gondola up to the lodge to play board games. I of course had to try my luck at skiing for the first time. I didn't want to take lessons right off the bat, so I just winged it on the green run. I'll let the text of my Yelp review tell the story:

Me: "Lessons are for suckers. I've snowboarded twice and done some ice skating. I'll be fine."
Me: [Going down the green hill] "AHHHHHHHHH!!!!"
Me: [A few runs later]: "Ok this isn't so bad. I'm starting to get the hang of this."
Me: [A few more runs later]: "Hey I have a crazy idea. Maybe I should try a blue run?"

So I ask a guide which blue run is the easiest, and he directs me to the nearby "California Trail". Sounds good! Well I regretted it as soon as I got on the chair lift and saw how far up it went. Or rather, did not see how far up it went, because the cable stretched off into the horizon.

I knew I was going to have some trouble when I got to the top of that billion foot tall mountain. That trail was freaking STEEP.

Me: "Well, there are only two ways down, and I'm not taking the chair. Ok here goes..."
Me: [Between screams]: "WHY DID I NOT TAKE LESSONS?!?!?!"
Well needless to say, I fell more during that run than I had all day prior. At least the view was awesome from up there. =/

That night we had dinner at Stateline Brewery because lots of my co-workers like to drink, which probably also helped drown out the pain that anybody may have been feeling from that day's (mis)adventures. And after that, since drinking at Stateline wasn't enough for some people, a bunch of us caravanned over to a bar near the hotel.

We stayed at Harveys for two nights - Friday and Saturday. I shared a room with one of the younger guys at Pure. We had a pretty nice room with double queen beds, a view of the lake, and a swanky bathroom with a separate changing area, room with a toilet, and a room with a bathrub and shower stall.

It was pretty awesome how the company lavished so much on us and got us an expensive room when cheaper ones were available. And as far as I could tell, there was no special treatment - for instance, the CTO had a room on my floor which probably had a worse view than mine! Man, this company is awesome.
Travel Galore - Monday, April 15, 2013
Weekend trips galore! That's what we've been doing these past few weeks. From March 23-24, Priscilla and I were up in Napa, and this past weekend we were down in Monterey.

The Napa trip was started by meeting a rep from a timeshare company at the Santa Clara Travel Expo. She promised us airfare and a two night stay in Hawaii and wine tasting for two, in exchange for attending a 90-minute timeshare presentation at their resort in Napa. So in March, we made the 1.5 hour drive up to Napa.

We found the presentation a bit sketchy, and apparently so did lots of other people who posted their experience on Yelp. We were given travel vouchers for a company that also has bad reviews (so we might not use it) and a buy one get one free coupon for wine tasting (not exactly what we were promised). No matter, we ended up going to one of the wineries listed on the voucher, Falcor Winery, and really enjoyed it. The wine was strong, the host was super friendly and helpful, and he gave us a tour of the whole winery. They even waive one tasting fee per bottle of wine bought, so we bought a 2008 Chardonnay with a nice butterscotch flavor.

We had dinner at Hilo Hawaiian BBQ, a place with decent food that resembled L&L. But they were cheap and didn't give us cups for water. That night we enjoyed walking through downtown Napa, and we stayed at the Fairfield Inn in nearby American Canyon to save money. $100 after tax for a large room with a kitchenette, sweet!

The following morning, we hiked at Skyline Wilderness Park and enjoyed visiting Lake Marie at the end of the hike, even though we took a wrong turn initially. Before heading home, we had lunch at Tarla Mediterranean Grill, and the food and service were sadly mediocre.

Fast forward to this weekend. Our one year anniversary is coming up in two weeks! Can't believe we've been married for almost a year now. Time sure flies. Originally we had planned to visit Monterey on our anniversary, but Deborah, Priscilla's maid of honor, recently got engaged and announced that her wedding would be on the 27th (her fiance is in the army and shipping out to Afghanistan soon). Since we didn't want to miss their wedding, we pushed our Monterey trip up by two weeks.

So on Saturday, we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Our church friends have an annual membership that provides them with two transferable guest passes, so they often let their friends use their guest passes to get into the aquarium for free! That's a savings of $35/person each time!

The aquarium was very enjoyable, albeit crowded. I particularly liked the psychedelic 1960s-themed jellyfish exhibit and the feeding held in the Kelp Forest. The otters were by far the most fun to watch. What a great place to visit!

Dinner was at a small, one-man-show place called Paprika Cafe. There was only seating for about a dozen people, but we got there early and missed most of the crowds. Service started getting slow as the place filled up. I felt bad for the poor guy. Ah, the Yelp effect.

We stayed the night at the Comfort Inn for $130. That room was pretty small, motel sized. And that was one of the cheaper places to stay in Monterey, sheesh! What's up with Monterey being so expensive?

The next day we hit up Point Lobos National Reserve, where we enjoyed a beautiful 5-mile hike through serene forest and along magnificent rocky coasts. Easily the most scenic hike we've been on to date. For lunch, we headed over to Fisherman's Wharf and ate at The Grotto Fish Market, where Priscilla had a coupon that gave us a free cup of clam chowder with purchase of an entree. We got a 1/2 pound crab and shrimp plate for $20, which included a cup of clam chowder, meaning each of us were able to have a cup. We also ordered 5 raw oysters. The food wasn't spectacular, but it was enjoyable. I enjoyed walking along the wharf and sampling the clam chowder from a few different places, even though I felt bad for not buying.

And hence concludes the past few weeks of fun. As mentioned, we'll be going to LA in two weeks for Deborah's wedding, and again for Memorial Day to spend some time with our parents. So the traveling is far from over this summer. I'll need to catch up writing my Yelp reviews while I can!
Birthday Fun - Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Slight change of plans: rather than me and Priscilla going down to LA for Memorial Day, her parents came up.

For Priscilla's birthday, they came up on Thursday, May 23. They visited their friends in Petaluma on Friday, and the four of us made the drive up to Sacramento on Saturday. Priscilla's been meaning to make us visit Sacramento, and her parents' spontaneous decision to visit made for a convenient time to take that trip.

On the way, we had lunch at Denny's, where I played the crane game and won a duck! We stopped at the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, where went on the free factory tour. Though the tour runs daily, factory operations don't happen on weekends, so our tour consisted of listening to our guide talk and watching videos of the manufacturing process. Still pretty cool. We also had free samples from the sample bar!

That evening, after checking into our room at the Fairfield Inn in Natomas, we walked around Old Sacramento and admired all the old western-style buildings and had dinner at Railroad Fish and Chips, somewhat of a hole-in-the-wall place. But the deep fried shrimp and fish were simply divine!

Sunday afternoon, we visited the Capitol Building and went on a free tour. It was interesting to learn that San Jose was the first capital of California after it became a state. Vallejo served as the next capital, then Benicia, then finally Sacramento. We visited the Assembly Chamber, modeled after the House of Commons in England, and the Senate Chamber, modeled after the House of Lords. After the tour, we posed for pictures outside of the governor's office in the Capitol annex. Too bad he wasn't there!

We tried to visit the Stanford Mansion for another free tour, but the building was unexpectedly closed. We had a late lunch at Shoki II Ramen House, where we each ordered a large ramen without knowing that "large" there would be HUGE by any other place's standards! Quite full after lunch, we somehow dragged ourselves over to the Sacramento County Fair, where we saw everything from a hypnotist show, variety show, an art, game and puzzle area, mechanical bull riding, and a huge building where livestock was being kept to be auctioned.

Finally on Monday, we visited Sutter's Fort and saw a live cannon firing, musket firing and blacksmith demonstration. It was cool learning more about the history of the area and about John Sutter, whom I did not know was from Switzerland! We were homeward bound after lunch at The Sandwich Spot, pretty tired after a full three-day weekend's worth of activities.

My birthday was slightly more low-key, and Priscilla and I celebrated it over two days. This past Saturday, we hiked at the Sawyer Camp Trail at the Crystal Springs Reservoir in San Mateo. That was followed by lunch at Espetus Churrascaria, where we finally got to use the $100 giftcard that Justin and Vicky gave us as a wedding gift!

Today I took the day off from work and used that time to go to the junkyard and get a parking brake release handle+cable to replace the one that broke on my car. It's nice to have an easily-releasable parking brake again. ;)

Priscilla and I had our buyer's agent submit an offer on a house that we're looking at in Santa Clara. Our agent expects up to 30 offers on the place, and without having made an extremely competitive offer, we probably won't get the place. It's just not a great time to buy right now.

Priscilla took a half-day and we used that time to get chores done and go to the gym. We had dinner at Ramen Seas, our new favorite place on Murphy Street that we've been to four times in the last two months.

We've definitely been keeping busy! And there's lots more lined up for the rest of June!
CCIC Retreat - Sunday, August 11, 2013
CCIC had our all-church retreat from August 9-11 at Redwood Christian Park in Boulder Creek. The guest speaker was supposed to be Pastor David from my home church in LA, but he was unable to make it due to being sick, and our very own Pastor Daniel was the surprise speaker instead. I'm sure he was a little surprised himself!

I enjoyed Pastor Daniel's sessions focusing on unity of the church body, how our salvation in Christ is the basis for unity with one another. We had some fun outdoor games, as well as pre-session games led by our fabulous emcee, Deborah.

The campus was beautiful, and for once, Priscilla and I received an upgraded room with bedding and our own bathroom! The first night, the English congregation met in one of the rooms onboard a recreation of Noah's ark- pretty cool. We spent some of our free time exploring the grounds and hiking- a few of us started on a hike, and the girls turned back early while the guys (me, Eddie and Richard) continued on till we reached our destination, a 6-foot wooden cross at a scenic point overlooking the forest below.

The food was alright, nothing over the top. At one point we had a rice porridge that was very bland. Still, I appreciated that the kitchen staff was trying to cater to our large group of Chinese people.

Overall, Priscilla and I had an enjoyable and restful time. I'm looking forward to the next retreat!
Macy's Gift Card Fraud - Saturday, August 24, 2013
Last December, the wife and I were victims of gift card fraud, where a thief drained the balance on our Macy's gift card, while the card was in our possession. Though Macy's replaced the card, it was not without hassle and prior embarrassment, something that could've altogether been prevented by Macy's physically securing the cards prior to sale.

Below is the review I posted on Yelp for the Northridge Macy's where our card was issued and re-issued. Though our card balance was restored, I was left unsatisfied with the manager's response and Macy's failure to protect consumers. I'm re-posting my review on my blog in hopes that 1. it'll get more exposure, and 2. I'll have it backed up in case Macy's attempts to get it removed from Yelp. The latter scenario seems unlikely (Streisand Effect, anybody?) but not altogether improbable.

My hope is that more people will be aware of the dark side of the gift card industry, will take steps to protect themselves against fraud, and perhaps even avoid buying gift cards going forward until said gift cards are made more secure.

Original review posted 8/24/2013:
Did you know that a gift card purchased from a store can already be compromised, allowing a thief to spend your balance without your knowing?

What Happened:
Last June, the wife and I received a gift that we returned to the Northridge Macy's for store credit. The gift amount of over $150 was loaded onto a Macy's gift card. Then at Christmas time, we received a shocking "present" when we tried to use our gift card at the Sherman Oaks Macy's and were told it had a zero balance!

After some helpful investigation by Sherman Oaks Macy's, we found that our gift card was used in October at the Macy's in Montebello, a city we'd never even heard of. But how could this have happened when the gift card never left our possession? Clearly, something fraudulent occurred.

The Scam:
So I did some research online and found that this type of gift card fraud is getting more common. And as recently uncovered, there's a whole crime ring that's been targeting Macy's: article here.

One method I read about involves the thief cloning a gift card. He'll do this by stealing a card from the store, taking it home, and using readily-available hardware to copy the account number on the card's magnetic stripe onto another card. He'll then return the original card to the store, wait for an unsuspecting customer to activate it with a balance, and then use the cloned card to drain the account's balance.

Macy's is ripe for this scam because they leave their gift cards on top of counters, often unsupervised, open for anybody to grab.

Our Money Back:
After I figured out what happened, the wife and I returned to the Northridge Macy's, where our card was issued, to get our card replaced. A manager helped me, and after 45 minutes of him making calls and taking my information, he was able to hand me a replacement card with the original balance.

However, I wasn't impressed with his attitude. He acted like he was doing me a favor, that this type of theft happens with all retailers and that Macy's is just another victim. Which is true in one sense, but the fact that Macy's leaves their first line of defense wide open by not physically securing their cards, places some fault on them. Not once did the manager apologize for the trouble and embarrassment that my wife and I were subjected to, trouble that Macy's could've and failed to help prevent.

Protect Yourself:
I asked the manager if my new card was secure, and he replied that there should be no problem with it since it was taken from a new box in the back of the store. Implicitly, he was admitting to the fact that the cards left wide open on the counter are insecure.

So if Macy's and other stores aren't going to protect your cards, how can you protect yourself? First, understand that though this type of fraud is very rare, it still does happen. Consider not buying gift cards and instead giving cash.

If you still must buy a gift card, try to buy one that's locked behind a window or is in large packaging, which is harder for a thief to have snuck out of the store.

And if you're the recipient of a gift card? Look for signs of physical tampering, try to use your balance quickly, and check your balance frequently for signs of fraudulent use. And keep all receipts, especially the initial one that shows how much money was loaded onto the card. If it wasn't given to you, ask for it.

Retailers love gift cards because they generate instant revenue and bring shoppers into the store. Retailers don't address the dark side of the gift card industry for fear that people will stop buying them. But if a store fails to reasonably protect consumers from gift card fraud, maybe it's time to rethink whether those gift cards make sense to buy.
Fixing My Monitors - Wednesday, November 27, 2013
I took the day off from work to run errands, among which were getting my car smogged and replacing the blown capacitors on my second monitor. I even wrote a guide about it (repairing the monitor, that is).

A month ago, my first monitor went bad due to faulty caps. I picked up a soldering iron from Home Depot and solder tip cleaner and solder wick from Radio Shack. I bought a replacement capacitor kit from eBay for about $14.

Opening the monitor and getting to the power supply board was easy enough; desoldering the caps was another story. The iron tip initially didn't get hot enough to melt the solder but instead oxidized. Nothing that the tip cleaner couldn't fix, though.

I then read that people with similar problems with desoldering pointed out that the board acts as a heatsink, drawing heat away from the solder. Heating the board with even a hair dryer can help reduce the heat differential and allow more heat to be concentrated on the solder. This technique worked well enough, and with enough persistence I was able to desolder all the old caps. Soldering all the new caps went pretty well, especially given that it was my first time soldering.

This time around, when my second monitor died for the same reason, I repeated the process and it expectedly went smoother than the first time. One blast with the hairdryer and all the caps were able to be desoldered with ease. So now both of my monitors have new caps that hopefully are immune from the capacitor plague. Sure, one of my monitors has recently developed a green line running vertically down the screen, but I expect my monitors to last me a long time. I never knew that soldering could be so fun!
New Computer, Games and Ingress - Thursday, November 28, 2013
I realized I'd never written about the computer I built last year. In late August and early September, I began amassing components when they were on sale. I got the following from Newegg:

I assembled the computer in September, and I was running with an old, cheap GeForce card until December, when I scored a sweet deal on a GeForce GTX 650 Ti from Amazon.

Since then, I've played through several games: Torchlight II, Portal, Portal 2, and Faster Than Light. None of those games are extremely graphics intensive, so my rig can run them at max settings.

Two months ago, Alex from church introduced me to a mobile augmented reality game called Ingress, made by a startup within Google. Ingress is a cross between capture the flag and Foursquare, fought between two factions: the Enlighted (green) and the Resistance (blue). Exotic Matter, or XM, is a new type of energy discovered that emanates from portals in the game which are located at landmarks such as public art, fountains, post offices, churches and historical buildings in the real world. The two factions are embroiled in an ongoing fight for control of these portals in order to achieve global dominance.

Portals can be interacted with only by being at their location in the real world, hence the challenge. And since the game does not always work well when commuting by automobile (there seems to be a 25% chance of requests failing at normal road speeds, and nothing works at freeway speeds), the preferred methods of commute are biking and walking. Through this gamification, Google gets a ton of user-submitted data about landmarks, and pedestrian mapping data for areas inaccessible by car. Once again, Google proves its brilliance.

The gameplay is simple: "hack" portals to acquire items like resonators and bursters, destroy enemy portals using bursters, and build friendly portals using resonators. Hacking a portal has the chance of yielding a portal key, which is used to create energy links between portals. Linking three portals creates a control field, which yields a number of mind units calculated based on the size of the field and the real-life population density within. The real-time total mind unit counts for each faction is shown in the game client and on the Ingress Intel webpage, and maximizing one's faction's mind unit count is seen by some as the ultimate goal of the game. Some people come up with impressive operations to create links thousands of kilometers long and fields of millions of mind units, which is especially a challenge because no two links can cross. Huge fields have been created covering all of the Bay Area, all of the west coast, a good portion of the continental U.S., and New Zealand, to name a few.

So back to my own Ingress-ventures. Alex plays Enlightened, but I found that my beliefs aligned more with the Resistance, people distrustful of XM and their alleged source, the Shapers, so I joined the blues to Alex's good-humored chagrin. I quickly joined the South Bay Area Resistance Google+ group and have met two Resistance agents in person while out playing the game; I also found out that a co-worker at Pure is also a blue player. I was hooked nearly instantly, and achieved Level 8, the highest level possible, in seven weeks.

Since reaching this personal end goal, I haven't been playing as much. I'll still run the client when in a car (or have Priscilla do it when I'm driving) to drive-by hack portals, but I don't go out as much as before to play. The game is a bit pointless entertainment, but it's something fun that can be enjoyed responsibly. It's made me exercise more- the game says I've walked 210km, and that's not including distance covered by bike. Plus I've gotten to know where many landmarks are in my area, which can't be a bad thing!
Getting a House! - Thursday, December 26, 2013
After losing bids on houses in February and June, Priscilla and I got a little discouraged and stopped looking. But at the end of last month, Daniel and Kelly got their offer accepted for a house in Sunnyvale, which motivated me and Priscilla to start looking again. Hey, why not? After all, the bidding isn't as intense during the winter holidays, so we thought we might have a better chance now.

So on December 7, we looked at five open houses in Santa Clara. We were surprised at how much inventory was on the market; we passed by signs for a few other open houses not on our list. Of the five we saw, our impressions ranged from "everybody's going to want this" to "who's going to want this?". We eventually decided on one in a quiet neighborhood, with 3 bedrooms (but more like 2.5 since one is very small) and 2 baths, and a 1-car garage. It didn't seem to be getting the same attention that some of the other houses we went to were, and ultimately there were 13 other offers (as opposed to 30 when we were bidding on the second house!). The house was listed at $683k, we bid $755k and the highest was $762k with some contingencies. Thanks to our top-notch buyer's agent, Susanna, ours was overall the most attractive offer since we put down no contingencies and a large deposit. The personal letter and pictures from us probably helped, too. ;)

Due to her previous job as a loan processor, Priscilla knew which documents she would need to provide to the loan company, especially since all large deposits from the last two months needed to be explained. Verification of my employment and financials went pretty much without a hitch due to her tireless efforts, Susanna's clout, and the excellent processors that we're working with, and today we were notified that our loan was approved, ahead of schedule, by the underwriter. All that's left is to go sign things, and close of escrow is January 8. I've largely taken a backseat to the whole loan process, but I'll definitely make up for it when it's time to make monthly mortgage payments!

One nice thing about the house is that it's move-in ready. The paint, roof, wood floors, granite countertops and copper piping are new. All that really needs to be done is some electrical work to run a ground wire to the outlets in the house. Priscilla's parents also want to buy us furniture and appliances.

We're very blessed to have parents who love and support us, adequate savings (again made possible mostly by our parents' and my grandfather's support), Priscilla's brief background in loan processing, and fortunate timing. God has blessed us with this house and made the process very smooth. Our hope is that we'll use this house to honor him and as a tool for ministry to those around us.