Category: Personal

How I Came About Studying Computer Science

After my military service and before my BSc, I spent the better part of a year traveling Abroad (primarily in South America). As my trip was nearing its end, my return to Israel grew imminent – namely, to start my undergraduate degree. I had previously decided I would major in psychology, a field which I had always found interesting. Since psychology is (at least in Israel) studied as part of a double-major, I had to choose a second major. Being male, coming from a technical army unit (and social circles) and a vague sense of future financial responsibilities, I semi-arbitrarily decided on economics as a second major. (After realizing that in the long run I valued profound experiences much more than comfort, I had also decided to go study in Jerusalem instead of Tel-Aviv. But that’s a different tale.)

I had emailed my parents, back in Israel, to help me take care of the logistics and paperwork. (This was 2008, even Internet connection was spotty in South America.) Something along the lines of Hi, I’m OK, could you please enroll me to the Hebrew University for Psychology and Economics? My parents – both Academics – had a better idea. No problem, they wrote back, we’ve enrolled you under Psychology and Computer Science.

I was not one of those people who it was obvious would go on to study computer science. I hadn’t programmed prior to University, and despite a semi-technical job in the military (technical hands-on product manager and/or BI specialist, more or less) I certainly wasn’t on a track in that direction. I was, however, in the final throes of a perspective-&-personality changing trip far away from home. And though I hadn’t touched any drugs on the trip (not for any moral conviction against as much as it just didn’t happen), I was in a mental state of fatalistic uber-complacency, something along the lines of ‘God works in mysterious ways’ and ‘It’s all good’. Accordingly, I acquiesced and gave my consent. Jah will provide.

Now, I wasn’t one of those people who you just knew would end up studying computer science. I majored in “computers” in high-school, which basically entailed studying some Pascal and understanding the concept of an ‘algorithm’ and had a semi-technical role in the army (a hands-on product manager and/or BI specialist), but I viewed myself more as a humanist than a realist. Decisions made on the road always seem to reflect a different light, though, and so I found myself letting God and the universe (and my parents’ aspirations and ideals about their children) carry me to a different course.

Uber-complacency flies well when backpacking; less so in a science major. Some epsilons and vector spaces and binomial coefficients later, I was regretting my easy-going acceptance of a course which I felt I had accidentally stumbled into. (Un)fortunately, I have always been good at working very hard on things I absolutely hated, and so despite coming a heart-beat away of switching majors after a treacherous (cold-)sweaty first semester, I eventually finished my CS BSc. (Psychology, too, which was not so hate-inducing and was quite interesting.)

So, God indeed works in mysterious ways. Today, I naturally think it has all been for the best and that CS, in the end, is indeed for me – effectively deciding my career path, no less. I am even one of those snooty science majors who looks down on everything else (dreadful, I know). On the other hand, I’ve noticed a commonplace psychological bias, where the vast majority of people tend to justify most of the major life decisions they’ve made (especially when the metrics are hazy or unattainable). So who knows? Perhaps avoiding CS in the first-place who have set me on a course of (even) further health, wealth, and joy.

No point in wondering about that, I suppose. Everything is from Jah.

Vegetarian – Six Months Mark

Today marks my six-month anniversary as a vegetarian.

I’ve always been sympathetic to the vegetarian cause. I assuming having to do with my general political views and social circles (it’s hard to separate the cause from the results, as these matters go) I’ve often found myself around and friends with vegetarians (and vegans, to a predictable lesser extent), including my mother, for example.

I gave being vegetarian a run in high-school which lasted all of 3 months. Since then, I have always (and still) maintained that vegetarian – or in a cruder format, not ignoring the torture and death of other animals for your food – is the morally ‘right’ thing to do. For a long time, I let myself off the hook the way many do – accepting it is a morally desirable act, but at the time accepting your own moral weakness and valuing your own egoism at the expense of others. This is a sticky subject; can one truly accept his own actions as ‘immoral’ but live in peace with himself? I suppose man’s powers of denial and distraction, fortified by modern life’s problems and pace and the ease of conformity, are indeed potent enough to make vegetarianism simply not a top priority.

In Israeli society, numerous cultural tradeoffs and beliefs and contested on a daily basis, forming a much more pressing issue than animal rights. Most Israelis already have a ‘is-this-food-OK’ test they mentally pass – Kosherness. Add to that God, Jewish ‘tradition’ in various interpretations, the Palestinian conflict, the inter-Jewish frictions, etc; to put it bluntly, nobody has the mental capacity to worry about Fluffy being pummeled to death to make for my sandwich. Accordingly, indeed exists a strong correlation between those who even discuss animal rights and those who view their cultural backdrop as Western Europe or North America. I am firmly in this last category, of course, but I’ll discuss the philosophy of my beliefs another time (this is post is more about the logistics, or an intro to the subject).

In the past few years, doing my undergrad, I had always been otherwise occupied – there was always something on my mind. But come July 2012, I had finished my last test, and my mind, in the ‘executive-function’ sense, was idle. This was a refreshing change. The Gary Yourofsky clip was the talk of the day at the time (link to version with Hebrew subtitles), and I cleared myself an hour or so to see the entire clip. Parts of it have been contested on various grounds – as usual, this was predominantly by the smarter-than-the-conventional-leftist crowds, who are liberal themselves but are mostly concerned with one-uppmanship or general criticism of other liberals. (Sometimes I unfortunately myself part of this group, but I hope not too often.) Mostly I think the criticisms were regarding the scientific parts — whether man was meant to be omnivorous or not, etc. My personal understanding is that the jury is still out on this issue, but in any case I’ve never cared for that. Homo sapiens is a raping, murdering creature self-bent on propagating his own genes no matter what. Anyway — morals and philosophy at another time. The point is that what spoke to me from Yourofsky’s videos wasn’t any disputable scientific claim, but the moral reminder that hey, that ham sandwich you’re chowing down meant the painful, torturous life for some poor innocent animal. As Yourofsky puts it – you cannot keep ignoring this pain. It is not your moral right. If you will do nothing good in your life on this planet, at least make an effort to cause as little pain to others as possible.

My thoughts had been similar already; it was an opportune reminder and moment. I decided to give it a shot, and went cold-turkey vegan. That turned out to be excessive; especially since the next couple months were spent traveling abroad in Central America, where the culinary diet of a traveler does not tailor well to specific catering needs. I cut back to just a vegetarian diet (including milk, cheese, and eggs) which allowed me to live comfortably. I hope someday to go vegan, but a gradual transition has proved itself necessary.

So by now it’s been six months. First steps for those who have been vegetarian for years, of course, but it’s a start. Living without meat is surprisingly easy – the desire crops up occasionally, but I find ignoring it is a non-issue. I feel as healthy as ever, despite (or due to?) a significant weight-drop (which is partially attributable to the traveling itself, meat non-withstanding). The lack of protein is concerning, especially as I try to maintain a high-protein diet for working out. But hey, can’t make an omelette without cracking some eggs, to use a quite-appropriate phrase. Allowing ovo-lacto products does mitigates this problem considerably, namely in the form of protein shakes.

Honestly, the only ‘hard’ part is the mental/emotional concern over the prospect of ‘never eating meat again’. ‘Never again’ is a daunting perspective on any lack thereof. There’s an easy solution for that, though, inspired by my friend (and vegetarian of a couple years) Boris: I am simply not swearing off meat forever. If the need gets too great, or in honor of some special occasion sometime, I might wolf down a hamburger. Or a steak. I’m not tied to any vow, and the potential leniency goes a long away to stave off ‘never-again’ anxiety.

So here’s to six months without meat. Unremarkable, unimpressive, and when my grandchildren’s dust settles, nobody will remember or care.

But at least I caused no indirect pain to any innocent animals. In this world, that’s something.

Greg – Back-of-the-Napkin Calculations

The “Greg” coffee chain was founded in Haifa (in 1994, according to their website). Some ten years ago, they had three branches, spread out across about  a mile of the Carmel. One of the branches was the closest coffee-shop to my parent’s house, was open 24/7, and had a cozy, laid-back atmosphere – so I found myself frequenting it often.

One of those nights, I was sitting with my friend Orr (who spells his name with a single r, as in the conjunction, but I maintain it should be spelled with two r’s, both to distinguish from the preposition and as in the character from Catch-22 (Wikipedia entry)). We idly got around to calculating how much money Greg were making. It seemed to me – based on the back-of-the-napkin calculations to be presented below – that Greg should making a fortune.

Now, Greg are open 24/7. Save for 4 days a year (Passover, Memorial Day, Holocaust Day, and Tish’ah be-Av), let’s assume month-round (30 days a month). The Kikar-Sefer branch we are talking about hosts some ~50ish tables for two (some lumped together to form a 4-6 sitter, of course). An average table of two should pick up an hourly tab of no less than 50 NIS (probably way more, but let’s stick with conservative estimates). Greg is never empty; even around 4 a.m. you would see some 4-8 tables occupied, standard hours would show about a 25% occupancy, and peak hours are completely booked, of course. (Greg being a popular venue on prime real-estate) My estimation — and this might be a key arguable metric, of crouse — would be an average occupancy of no less than 25% – i.e., some 12 tables occupied per hour on average, for any given hour, all day long (all week long, all month long).

Using the above assumptions, this would result in an average hourly revenue of 50 NIS per table, times 12 tables, == 600 Shekels an hour, or 14,400 Shekels a day, or ~430,000 a month. Assuming a staff of ~12 workers, each at an assumed  input of ~5,000 a month, would take a bite out of that at 60,000 – bringing profits down to 370k. In a 50-NIS tab presumably the order consisted of nothing more than drinks, whose ingredients’ prices are negligible. (If the tab includes something more pricey such as vegetables or meat, the tab would be significantly higher – in our conservative estimate we are ignoring those cases, but they only boost earnings higher.)

Situated on prime real-estate, let’s assume the rental costs are a whopping 100k per month – bringing profits down to some 270k. Assume another 100k in utilities and other arbitrary expenses – we’re down to still 170k of profits per month. This figure was reached what seemed to me to be quite conservative estimates.

Each assumption could be argued separately, of course, but I fail to observe any estimate (or combination of estimates) that would throw the end result off in an order of magnitude, even if changed drastically. Perhaps the most contentious claim is the 25% average occupancy rate, though having personally frequented the place at pretty much every hour in the day, I can say from first-hand experience it shouldn’t be much less.

So 170,000 Shekels in profit per month, on average. Which would work out to about 2 million shekels in profit per year(!). Big numbers.

Back to the story, when we finished with these back-of-the-napkin figures and reached what we thought to be an astounding result, we asked to see the manager/owner. He was a young guy – probably not much more than 30-something, and amiable enough. He wouldn’t confirm the end result, but acknowledged most of the estimates were close enough.

Today, Greg has 84 branches across Israel. Maybe the napkin’s numbers were close enough.

(Further reading, not immediately relating to post’s content: Quora/Forbes on how to run a successful coffee-shop.)

Jerusalem Snow – 2012 Memories

It snowed today in Israel; as usual when this happens, it made the major news headlines. (In Israel, this is reflected by a) Ynet’s main headline, and b) Facebook’s dominating topic) Naturally, the snowy regions were limited to the higher mountains – the Golan, some of the higher parts of the Galilee, and Jerusalem. This marks two years in a row for Jerusalem; I don’t even know when was the last time that happened (early 1990s, perhaps?).

Last year’s snow — some ten months ago, in early March of 2012 — I had the good fortune to be living in Jerusalem. Limor and I stayed the night at her dorms, even waking up at four in the morning to see if it had snowed. (‘Will it snow or not’, as alluded, is a focal point of attention for those affected in Israel. Think kids waiting for Santa.) It hadn’t snowed at 04:00, but around 07:00 the snow ‘caught on’, and it was intense and beautiful.

Jerusalem Snow 2012 - Life is Beautiful
Me in the Snow, Givat-Ram, Jerusalem, March 2012

(Further pics: here)

As we walked around campus enjoying the snow, we ran into a tall, thin guy (I would have said ‘lanky’ but I google-defined it and it’s slightly unflattering, and I’m afraid he’ll read it, so let’s just avoid unnecessary diplomatic gaffes) wheeling along two small airport-style suitcases (the type nobody in Israel uses. Correction: the type nobody in Israel but Limor uses). Obviously lost, he asked us  in Spanish-accented English if we knew where the dorms’ resident clerk was. This was Peio, a (PhD) foreign exchange student from Spain, who had the bad luck to land in Israel on a Friday morning of the only snow-storm in the past few years. He had had to wait at Natbag Airport for six hours for the first bus into Jerusalem, then eventually made his way to the dorms area, and now basically had no idea what to do. And the snow grew harder.

Givat-Ram Campus, Jerusalem, March 2012

This being the weekend, it wasn’t obvious anyone would be on duty. Fortunately, we managed to find a small office, where rag-tag Hebrew-only signs said the resident clerk would come around at about 09:00. (Comparisons to “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” came to mind.) Wondering if anyone would indeed come around at 09:00, in the meantime we hosted Peio in our room, gave him a place to warm off and some cookies and hot tea.

Peio eventually got his room (small enough you could touch both walls when you spread out your arms) and some respite from the storm (which had grown harder. Trees were felled.) And we had made a new foreign friend in the snow.

Peio & Limor


Rainy Day

Today saw Israel flooded with a heavy downpour, causing nation-wide mayhem. Tel-Aviv’s main highway was flooded by the adjacent river, and the entire country was paralyzed. Personally, I was supposed to have two job interviews — one next to Azrieli towers, and one in northern Tel-Aviv, next to the Namal (harbor). As the morning reports of terrific traffic jams evolved, the national news website (Ynet) spread the police’s urges to drivers to avoid Tel-Aviv.

Around 9 a.m., just as I was preparing to leave, the first company called in to cancel — they simply couldn’t reach work themselves, so we would have to reschedule. As the hours passed I wondered whether the second company would cancel, too; when they didn’t, and as the epic storm continued, I decided it would be at least a good adventure to go out there, rain or not.

The train service was all but down, but fortunately I only needed to get to Tel-Aviv’s northern-most station (Tel-Aviv University). Amusingly, in national crises such as these, public companies operate in a “patriotic” manner, doing all in their power to assist the ‘nation’; in this case, opening the gates so passage without tickets. Service was still shot; timetables were admittedly non-existent and arrivals sporadic. To most Israelis (those who had experienced national services under fire, for example Northern Israel in 2006 or Southern Israel in 2012) this is a familiar site: public services doing their shoddy yet valiant best under difficult circumstances.

Eventually arriving in Tel-Aviv, it was raining heavily. The last time I had to get from Tel-Aviv Univ. to the Namal I walked; that had been an annoying (but sunny) 40 minutes. This time a cabby said it would be 50 shekels(!) for the rainy ride. Ha! No evil cabby will trick adventurous Me. I mosied out to the main road and caught line 12, whose driver told me he would only go far as Reading parkway. No problem, as even my lousy iOS Maps app knows that’s a short walking distance (some 750m). As I got off the bus, the rain had paused. Success! Such an adventurous explorer, I. All those wimps who stayed at home; the chosen people fear no hardships!

Instantly, however, my luck changed, as it started to rain. No biggie, I thought, as I hastened my pace. A little excitement is all, as I broke into a jog, as the rain got stronger. And wouldn’t you know it, within a heartbeat it was a full-fledged downpour, hail and all, and I was completely drenched. Effectively I might as well had jumped into a pool. Sprinting at full power (not a pretty sight) I could find no shelter, nor shortcut. Hate Tel-Aviv; something bad always happens!

I eventually reached my destination (even in the pouring rain, 750m can’t take that long), and had to get out of my soaked clothes as soon as possible. Job interview or not, if I didn’t get a quick change of clothes, I would get pneumonia. I ended up buying a pair of sweat pants and new socks at a Mega Sport across the road.

That set me back some 100 NIS and made for an awkward interview. I’m sure somewhere the evil cabby karma in the sky is cackling with malice, but I’m satisfied — at the end of the day, even if in a minor way, I got the adventure I was looking for. Day well spent.

Coursera: World-Class University Courses Online

My recent favorite site is Coursera.

In a nutshell, they team up with leading universities to create online courses, each comprised mainly of short video snippets of the lectures. You can ‘enroll’ in a course (one of various subjects) and take part in ‘quizzes’ as part of a pre-defined timetable, or you can just watch the videos whenever you feel like it.

Mock timetables are as expected quite efficient and popular in helping people commit to study plans; previous efforts to provide online courses (such as Stanford’s Databases course and Machine Learning course) offered not only a set timetable and a Q&A forum and exercises, but even an auto-checking and -grading mechanism for the exercises, to further incentivize the participant and allow feedback loops. Auto-grading is almost expected when dealing with a technical matter (where the exercises often result in some actual code being written, which can easily be tested) but I would argue than any subject can be formalized into an auto-testable format, at the very least in the form of a multiple-choice test. AFAIK the courses offer either mock credentials upon completion or none at all, so there is little reason to cheat. (Although plagiarism does exist sometimes; see e.g. here)

I’ve always been interested in teaching techniques, and it’s fun to see this huge advancement. This is a step forward from just “let’s put a webcam in the classroom during the lecture and then post the video online”; the snippets are each 5-15 minutes long (short enough to easily concentrate on), and most of the time the video is centered on a dedicated whiteboard displaying slides on which the lecturer can draw (with a special pen), displaying his comments and marks immediately. Pretty much the way I’d want it to be like… (a transcript of the lectures would be good, though, as many people read faster than they listen, certainly when ingesting a new subject which requires reading multiple times).

Coursera certainly aren’t the first in their field — Stanford (and others) had already been offering some form of online courses, Khan Academy is better-known, and Udacity is similar. Slowly but gradually things are changing, and one day even universities in Israel might have to change their arcane ways of teaching everything orally “live”.

On a personal note, I’ve been trying to get to study Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning course on Coursera. Updates on that as events warrant.

So anyway, go on and check it yourself — no excuses now for a bad education other than your own laziness. 🙂


Everybody Loves Psychology

I get asked sometimes why I chose to major in Psychology in my BSc. This is a reasonable question, especially considering my other major was Computer Science. CS is a far cry from Psychology — academically, logistically (at HUJI, it’s on the other side of town), and socially (very little overlap of students between the departments).

[Side note: throughout this post and in general, I’m never quite sure whether to capitalize degree majors. As in, “psychology” or “Psychology”? Sources differ (see here vs here), but it seems like the bottom line is: nobody cares.]

The quite mundane reason is that I like Psychology. More importantly and to stress the idea, I think everybody likes Psychology: we all like to talk about our friends and acquaintances, discuss their motives and personalities, and extrapolate as to who-would-do-what-and-why. It’s such human nature, in everything from family relations to dating to employment hierarchies — we care about what makes people do what they do. We’ve got our personal takes on human nature, our anecdotal tidbits shaping our world views. It seems to me that psychology, in some form or another, is high on the list of interests of all (well, most) of us. It’s just that for various reasons few of us choose to pursue that interest in an academic fashion, instead electing other niches of personal / professional interest.

Heck, the very act of asking a person why did you choose to study psychology is a validation of the premise of my reason. We all care about what makes people tick, some of us just choose to make an academic career (well, at least a Bachelor’s degree) out of it.

[Note from Limor: Since we’ve established by now that many interviewers might read my blog, at least I’ll be able to use this post to save myself the time from repeating this].

Ubuntu 101

(The following is a brief technical description of my first steps in switching from Windows to Linux.)

Most of my professional development experience has been over Windows. I am really comfortable with Windows and I feel I am able to work and multitask efficiently and effortlessly. However, branching into server-side web development (and professional work in general) I feel I should ramp up my Linux expertise. The best to do that, I figure, is jump right in, so after going dual-boot a while back, I will now try to conduct my daily business in an Ubuntu environment.

Since I wanted to ease the pain, the first task was to make the look-and-feel as Windowish as possible. After stumbling around for a little bit, I managed to get down the immediate list of customizations I needed to ‘feel at home’, essentially emulating a couple of my favorite Windows most ubiquitous tools.

  • (Figure out what the “Ubuntu Software Center” is and how you can use it instead of mucking around with manual installations.)
  • Add a bottom taskbar so I can view and switch between running applications (link)
  • Configure “win-D” to minimize-all and “win-R” to open a new terminal screen. These are not mandatory, but it just makes me that much more comfortable when they work. (Done via ConfigCompiz Settings Manager, download it)
  • The above required configuring the ‘super’/’win’ key not to open the Dash Home (Unity Plugin); instead, I locked this to win-q, which was my hot-key for my beloved Slickrun (link, Win only).

So now I at least have a minimal sense of control over my applications and terminals, which makes jumping into Linux that much less frightening. The next step will be finding a replacement for my beloved Notepad++, probably a minimally spiced-up gedit. (link)

Culture Thursdays (The Band’s Visit)

Limor and I are trying to get some sort of “Culture Thursdays” tradition going on, where we would watch some sophisticated movie or otherwise engorge on some high-society culture. This would be either every Thursday or… some other combination which would allow us to observe the Sabbath efficiently. (Side note: define “efficiently” as adequately addressing the following problem: on Friday nights we can’t go out by car, nor can we watch a movie, so both such activities should be relegated to Thursdays — but we can’t quite do both [in the same night] on a Thursday, and staying in on a Thursday means staying in on a Friday is less desirable… Basically, you can see how planning this ‘tradition’ quickly turns into an optimization problem, and this is even before the first line by Humphrey Bogart.)

However, even without finalizing the exact details of the aforementioned future ‘tradition’, we kicked it off with the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” (“ביקור התזמורת”). I have ambiguous feelings toward the Israeli cinema. As a self-identifying fan of Hollywood films (to be discussed IAP, In Another Post), I am always wary of sub-par performances and production. This is a problem with any low-budget film but with Israeli films in particular, probably due to my intimate familiarity with the cultural norms, it seems the professional compromises and cinematic (story and otherwise) shortcuts are especially evident to myself. (On the other hand, it certainly might be that my national criticism is the root cause here, but the end result of ultimate dissatisfaction is the same.)

In any case, the film was enjoyable, at least to our exhausted selves. I did not feel it was above the standard Hollywood cut, but it did succeed in what I expect from a good Israeli movie to do: showcasing local characters and situations well enough to provoke empathy despite lacking dramatic cinematic developments.

Maybe I’m just a sucker for Israeli movies set in Development Towns (“עיירות פיתוח”). I loved “Turn Left At the End of the World” (סוף העולם שמאלה), which perhaps will highlight our next Culture Thursday.

The Band’s Visit – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Interviewers That Read a Candidate’s Blog

At a lengthy job interview today (a few hours long), the discussion took a turn which provoked me to show something from my blog. As I was bringing it up, the interviewer (sitting next me; informal setting) said something along the lines of “Oh right, you’re the guy with the blog where you wrote about how you hate Maccabi Tel-Aviv, right?”

I am (see link, of course) and acknowledged. This was met with a humorous response (he literally stuck his hand out proudly and said “just for that, you’re hired”), but I was very surprised he had read my blog (which is on my resume), and I said so. 

“Oh, of course,” he said. “I read your blog, your Facebook account,” he made bunny ears, “your LinkedIn account…”

I was speechless. I guess this was just me being naive, but I was shocked somebody would go out of their way enough to read up on a person prior to an interview. This is an expected level of professional thoroughness before interviewing someone, but my standards had been set low after countless silly phone interviews with head-hunters who repeatedly ask me questions I had explicitly answered on quite succinct resume. (“So where did you go to school…?”) And this guy had put in his two cents of reading my blog.

I still think people worrying about their Facebook pics deterring potential employees are overrated, at least in Israel and certainly in the high-tech industry. No self-respecting employer would bar an employee over a few drunken pictures on Facebook (hey, we’ve all been there). Still, it was interesting to see that in what seems to me to be the very unstructured process of hiring, some due diligence is being given, at least by some people, some of the time.