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by SS at 7:34 am on Wednesday 10th June

It's finished! As I mentioned way back in November, I had committed to the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, a historic triathlon that involves jumping off a boat into the San Francisco Bay, swimming to the city, biking around a bit and then running around a bit.

The swim is really the most significant aspect of the triathlon and it's the one I prepared the most for. Preparation started in ernest at the end of 2014 and my motivation really kicked in after my cousin Rita told me more or less that I was an idiot for attempting to swim a distance on my injured shoulder. If there's anything that I hate more than anything, it's being told I can't do something - so this really helped :).

The day of the event began at 3:20 am with a hastily consumed bowl of Trader Joe's granola decorated with a severely overripened banana. The banana was potentially a mistake because I immediately felt nauseous. At 3:35, dad and I were on the road to San Francisco. My phone battery was at 14% because, in the age of technological progress, it was deemed wise to manufacture a USB cable so thin that it could feasibly be plugged in upside down and the user would be none the wiser.

Thankfully it lasted long enough for us to reach San Francisco and at that point I reassembled my bike, gave my dad the phone with 6% of battery remaining and wished him luck with navigating to a parking spot. (He ended up finding parking near by and attempted to nap for a couple of hours.)

Arriving at the transition area at 4:15am, there was already a long line of riders waiting to enter. A female triathlete in a foul mood asked a volunteer why it was necessary for them to queue at this time. He shrugged and said he didn't know, as she rushed away to the end of the line. Another triathlete jumped in and said to the volunteer, "thank you, by the way, for giving up your time to be here."

Once in, I was very happy with my position at the end of the rack. An officious looking woman observed me laying out my towel underneath my bike and insisted that I make sure I didn't extend out too far outside of the rack. Given that my towel was perhaps 30 centimetres in width and the adjacent walkway was several metres wide, I could only laugh.

By the time I racked up, it was 4:30 am and I decided that it was probably wiser to use a porta-toilet before donning my wetsuit, for the obvious convenience. At this time there was already a substantial queue and so I was forced to take the first stall that was available, a structure that lacked the most basic stability from the outside and gave me the very real sensation while inside that I was about to re-enact that scene from Family Guy where Peter's porta-toilet falls over. Euch.

At 4:50am, the line for the bike pump was about 50 athletes deep. Meanwhile, outside, the line to get into the transition area had a couple of hundred athletes in it. While I was initially miffed at the early start to the event, it turns out to have been A Good Idea.

One of the best things about arriving so ridiculously early was that I got to make several acquaintances from around the world. In particular, there was the British woman who had flown in from New Zealand, the British man who had flown in from Toronto, the Rice university student who was the sole competitive triathlete in their club, the French man who was here for a second time and the German man who was a professional triathlete.

I got to the boat at just after 5am and gave up everything that I didn't need for the swim (including my glasses) and found a comfortable spot on the carpet next to a fence they had erected a few feet from the starboard windows to stop the boat getting unbalanced as people jumped off. Later, after I remarked that the carpet was actually fairly comfortable, the German pro mentioned I should notice how the carpet is wet as we leave. That, apparently, is from triathletes who don't wish to queue for the limited toilets on the boat. Euch.

Speaking of the limited toilets, one of the few possessions I had with me that I wasn't swimming with was a water bottle. Staying hydrated is important and I finished that bottle fairly quickly. However, now snugly wrapped up in a wetsuit, it made visits to the facilities somewhat tedious. The first was okay, given enough space in a stall, but the second and third involved significant queueing and some careful balance (I'm adamant my wetsuit will be exposed mostly to water).

1.5 hours later, we were close to departing. I felt like a nap. The adrenaline from waking up at 3:15am had mostly worn off. There wasn't, however, any space to lie down. Walking to the bathrooms involved hopping into tiny triangles in between excited triathletes. It would have been nice to do the Escape with a friend.

The boat departed at 6:34. There was much cheering. I was nervous.

At just after 7, we completed a circuit of the Alcatraz island. Athletes were stretching on the balcony. The queue for the bathroom was the entire length of the boat.

As it approached 7:30, the American national anthem played. I started an activity on my watch. It was searching for a GPS signal.

At 7:30, triathletes clustered at each end of the starboard side, where there were two openings in the rails. The fog horn rang. A loud cheer erupted, simultaneously with the almost non-stop sound of beeping as athletes walked over the timing mats and jumped off the boat. I made my way towards the exit at the back of the starboard side.

I walked over the timing mat. It beeped, many times, as others also walked over. There was little time to think, I wanted to walk straight off but ended up walking to the right to find a gap in the row of people jumping off. My watch was still searching for a GPS signal.

The water wasn't actually that cold. And the waves, they weren't that bad. I was disappointed. My competitive advantage was partially in the fact that I'd trained for the intensity of the Alcatraz swim, but the water that day, it was flat. The fastest swimmers apparently finished in 25 minutes or so. I took 40 minutes.

Unlike the HITS Napa triathlon I did, where I had elbows and feet hitting me from all angles, I only got hit a couple of times by other swimmers. One of those swimmers was going the wrong way, so I kept swimming into him. He continued trying to cross my path but I swore under my breath and kept going. He eventually gave up. I like to think I saved him some energy.

Swimming the Bay with 2,000 other swimmers was unlike anything I've ever done before. I felt like I was in a school of triathletes, each mostly swimming autonomously yet collectively we were all going the same way and helping each other navigate that way. Swimming in open water is so unlike anything else - there's nothing quite as expansive and as uniform as the surface of the sea.

After a while (well, 40 minutes), I arrived at the shore. I had left a shirt and a pair of shoes in a bag which was left out there. A volunteer helped me pull my wetsuit off. The shoes and shirt went on, and I overtook a number of people trying to run the half a mile to the bike racks in their wetsuits. Heh.

Bike shoes on, a run out to the mount point and I was off. The wind was at my back. I overtook a number of triathletes struggling to get up to speed on the flat. The hills came quickly enough, though, and I slowed down. Ostensibly, I was preserving energy for the run.

The bike course for the Escape is lovely, a hilly course around San Francisco with some lovely corners. That morning was foggy and descending into the fog on the return trip was much fun. I was adventurous, undeterred by the sight of an athlete who wrecked going down one of the downhills and who was now covered in blood and strapped to a body board being loaded into an ambulance. Out of towners struggle with the hills, particularly if they insist on using tri bikes.

There was a pungent smell emanating from my brake pads after a couple of the downhills. I'm glad I updated them a few weeks ago, they made the corners much more enjoyable.

While in Golden Gate Park, I made friends with a bearded, tattooed chap with a great shorts/jersey combination which were covered in flame graphics. These matched his tattoos well. I commented on this and we had a lovely conversation about Pittsburgh, from which he traveled.

The end of the bike was sad, for me, because running is mostly just pain. I put my new running shoes on and ran out. There's nothing sadder than a runner wearing cycling lycra but I'm too cheap to buy a tri-suit and too Indian to fit well within my cycling lycra.

On my way out, I overheard my dad directing my roommate Ryan to his location and was amused. My friend Alberto, an impressive triathlete who was there as a supporter, yelled "Go Sunil!". I smiled. A few metres later, a lady burst into laughter and commented, "what a great smile!".

The run was slow from the beginning. I was quickly overtaken by many of the athletes I had overtaken earlier while cycling. Still, I enjoyed the scenery and was the subject of a couple of comments, "You've traveled a long way from Cambridge!". One of these was from another 27 year old called Rob, with whom I confided that I was too cheap to buy a new jersey. We had a surprisingly in-depth conversation about why there are so many fast 40 year old triathletes and so few late twenty-somethings. He was faster at running than I was, so I bade him goodbye and continued on.

The finish to the triathlon was odd. You run past people who've already finished and families doing ordinary things. You can taste the end but you're not there yet. There's a good few hundred yards of grass to run through. The grass was slippery and my balance was suspicious. I didn't trip though.

Running through the inflatable finish gate, I was happy that it was over, that I finished. Also, a little underwhelmed. I'd expected that at the end of this accomplishment, my legs would be full of lactic acid, or I'd be ravenous, or faint. I felt fine. Perhaps I should have run faster ;-).

I had an assortment of friends and my dad waiting for me at the finish line. Actually, that's something of a lie, most of my friends arrived a minute after I finished because apparently my time prediction was perhaps a little too accurate - but they were there and that was wonderful! Thank you!

The hardest aspect of becoming a triathlete for any sort of event longer than a sprint distance triathlon is figuring out how to manage your time. The last six months or so have been an endless battle between my social obligations (mostly voluntary, mind you) and this underlying fear that I wasn't training enough. Well, it turns out that less is more - at first I overtrained and I was hellishly tired at work. Then I started training less, sleeping more and suddenly started breaking PRs on Strava.

The momentum is addictive and it'll probably carry me through to a half Ironman distance triathlon in September. My next challenge has already been set though - in March 2016, Phil and I will be participating in the Cape Epic, a notorious mountain bike race described as "the Tour de France of mountain biking".

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by SS at 5:59 am on Tuesday 10th March

The BART (less the people and more the system) screwed me and a few thousand other passengers overnight when the holy trinity of delay-causing events coincided to result in hour long delays trying to get home to the East Bay. Having completed triathlon number one yesterday resulting in some stomach unease (as apparently is common for endurance athletes) and having had my rest cut short by the ogre of Daylight Saving Time, I was ready to go home. This wasn't to be and as I made my way back up to ground level to return to the office for an hour, I ran into Armin (who cycled with Phil and I down to Los Angeles last summer) and so we went to get drinks.

Yesterday's (and my first) triathlon was also my first Treeathlon, having been organised by the Stanford Triathlon Club (Stanford has a tree as their mascot, so you know, Treeathlon, get it?).

Being woefully underprepared for the mechanics of a triathlon, I drove down on the Saturday immediately preceding the event to pick up my race packet. It's spring now in California, which means that the weather is gorgeous and about as good as anything you could expect on the very best days in London (if a little cooler). With the sunroof down, I drove the 2004 Sodhsmobile down to Redwood Shores, a private estate consisting of a number of office buildings and a marina (I can't imagine why they didn't have housing here too but perhaps I wasn't looking hard enough).

Having eventually found the volunteer run registration tent, I picked up a t-shirt (groaning at yet another branded t-shirt which I'll probably wear only while training for other triathlons) and a mysterious assortment of numbers (one small, one large, and one printed on paper with a paperclip attached to it) in a plastic bag (thankfully recyclable). With some trepidation I asked the volunteer, a friendly college aged woman, if I could ask her some stupid questions. I asked her what time I should arrive, how the transition area worked and what most people wore for the bike and run parts of the triathlon. Her answers were helpful but left several details unclear to me - but assuming some bravado was necessary, as a triathlete, I hoped that these questions would answer themselves the next day, at the event itself.

I ended up staying up a little too late that night, having procrastinated after dinner and having forgotten to swap the cyclocross tyres that were currently on my Ti bike for some nice slick road tyres. The clocks went forward though, which really hurt the next morning when I woke up after 6 hours sleep feeling non-trivially rough. Still, the adrenaline got me moving soon enough (along with a couple of Trader Joe's new Cookie Butter Cookies, the next best thing in meta).

My budget Chinese smartphone, the venerable OnePlus One (AKA but not really as the "two"), decided it wasn't ready to wake up and do useful things however, and after fiddling with it on the highway for a little too long to be considered a safe driver (thankfully the rest of the car driving population were sound asleep at home), I ended up getting lost in Fremont for at least 10 minutes. I eventually managed to get the navigation system working in the 2004 Sodhsmobile (it's one of those old school DVD based navigation systems that looks like what you might imagine the avionics displays of a 90s fighter jet might render as) at which point the OnePlus One (Two) decided to start being useful again and I had two navigation systems barking at me on my way to Redwood Shores.

The scene here was significantly busier than the day previous, making me thankful that I had registered earlier. The queues for both the registration and the porta-toilets were significant. After wandering back and forth a couple of times and observing the horde of excitable college students who were all competing (for what I think was the first race of the collegiate series), I asked a student who was near my car what to do with all the numbers in the recycleable plastic bag. I then took everything but my wetsuit over to the transition area.

Finding a place for my bike was difficult - people naturally spread out to fill the space that is available and I ended up asking someone if I could slide his bike over to fit mine in. Underneath your bike is a surprisingly generous amount of space to lay out your possessions for the transition (another thing that was impressive is how triathletes pre-attach their shoes to their bikes, the idea being that you put your shoes on while cycling!). I also needed to get body markings, a procedure where a volunteer with a pen writes several numbers on your arms, including your race number (#551 for me, although he got this wrong on the first arm) and your age (27, written on your left leg so that people know whether they need to overtake you or not to do well in their age group).

This accomplished, with my bike being in a safe place, I then decided to queue for the porta-toilet. The queue was still long though, and I had about 6 minutes to use the bathroom, run to my car, fetch my wetsuit and return to the transition area before they shut it. While putting my wetsuit on, I made conversation with a man in full TeamGB kit. Soon enough it was the whole "where are you from?", "England", "yah, but where in England?" conversation with him and his carbon fibre Specialized road bike painted in a colour scheme that I could only imagine was inspired by a Cadbury's Creme Egg.

A young kid (who must have been 16) and his mother were getting ready just next to us, TeamGB fellow helpfully zipped my wetsuit up for me and joked that it'd get a lot more comfortable once I peed in it. I did not pee in it but was now (oddly, given the expectation that it's all basically sewage anyway) perturbed by the idea of accidentally drinking triathlete urine while swimming. Having stashed the keys to my 2004 Sodhsmobile in the toe of my bike shoes, I walked over to the swim start point. Just in front of me was a man struggling with the last part of zipping his wetsuit, I offered to help and this sparked a conversation where I found out that this hero had managed to train for an Ironman triathlon while working a job at a venture capital and raising two little kids. Epic.

The energy levels (and, for me, a rather bilious nervousness) rose the closer we got to the start of the swim. The collegiate men's wave had yet to depart and were thrashing about in the water warming up. I wandered closer as a group of men who looked like they were all within the 18 to 34 years old group that I was part of crept closer to the edge of the water. The ramp was slippery, covered in damp green algae. The water lapping up the ramp was a murky brown in colour, a far cry from the almost sapphire blue coloured water I normally swim in, closer to the mouth of the Bay in Berkeley.

Once the first collegiate wave departed, I walked into the water, deliberately ignoring thoughts about its contents, and swam a couple of small laps. Looking down into the water through my goggles, it was a cloudy grey/brown colour. I lost track of the other nervous newbies I had met on the ramp so ended up lining to the left of the starting line, under the assumption that the lower density of people here would reduce the probability of me getting kicked in the face by another 18 to 34 year old.

With my watch ready to go in "Multisport" mode, and holding my arm above the water to prevent it losing satellite reception, I waited for the buzzer. Before long it was ten seconds left to go.

On the count of 4 I hit the start button and got ready to thrash.

It hit 0 and the water became choppy. I started swimming, but kept my head out of the water to avoid swimming into a fellow triathlete. I forgot how to breathe, at first. Soon, after turning around the first buoy (or booey, as Americans pronounce it), the field cleared up a little and I was able to swim and breathe more normally. After what felt like a short time (and was actually a short time, about 10 minutes), I saw what looked like the end. Sure enough, it was!

Climbing out on the slippery ladder up to the slightly rocky pontoon, I started the 0.75 kilometre run back to the transition area in my wetsuit. It was entertaining trying to slide my arms free out of the wetsuit after removing my goggles (in retrospect I should have kept the goggles on until after) and while still wearing my chunky watch. I'm sure I felt my left shoulder subluxate a little in the effort it took to pull my arm free from the wetsuit, but whatever.

It took me about 4.5 minutes to change out of my wetsuit and don a full cycling suit (lycra jersey, padded shorts and SPD shoes) which I'm quite proud of. I had a brief conversation with my 16 year old neighbour who, sadly, had apparently been kicked in the face by another swimmer and had lost his goggles as a result!

The bike section itself was pretty uneventful (and, I might add, somewhat boring), leading us up a road for 1.5 miles, back down the same road, and around the Redwood Shores estate itself. I saw a middle aged woman on a cruiser bike and thought it was excellent, although her facial expression was one of near terror.

I never understood the stereotype of triathletes being underwhelming cyclists but it was pretty amusing watching people try and overtake badly, particularly when using ridiculous aerobars (on a 12 mile bike ride, absurd).

The transition to a run was simpler still, taking me just a minute to put my bike away and change shoes. At this point I realised my thumb was bleeding although, a day later, I still haven't figured out where exactly the blood was coming from.

I'm not a great runner and by this point I was wishing hard that I had urinated earlier in the marina like the other triathletes. Still, I soldiered in the belief that 3 miles couldn't really be all that bad. The first thing I noticed (other than my full bladder) was that my back was kind of sore and wasn't at all happy about being subjected to the impact of foot after foot hitting the tarmac. I ignored it and kept going.

Later, TeamGB guy (who was in the 35+ wave, which started ten minutes after ours) overtook me. He yelled at me, "if you're going to wear a Cambridge jersey, you're going to have to run faster!". To which I replied, "but I was a cyclist at Cambridge".

Feeling my legs cramp up a little, I picked up some sort of isotonic drink from a volunteer next to the track but drinking while trying to run was the most awkward enactment and I'm sure most of it ended up on my Cambridge jersey.

With just under 2 miles to go, my watch helpfully vibrated an alert at me "Recovery time: good". I'm still not sure whether it told me that because I was going so slow it /assumed/ I was recovering or if it was telling me my pace was on track for a good recovery.

Having turned the final u-turn to get back to the finish line, I was overtaken by the collegiate athlete from Brown but trying to discern which university he represented was very difficult because he was wearing nothing but a pair of Speedo style swimming trunks, on which his university name was printed.

At some point ahead of me a Stanford athlete went through to great applause and cheering from her friends on the course. I came through to deathly silence afterwards but that, perhaps, is my fault for insisting that none of my friends come to spectate. Once I was through the silence I strolled through the finish line to be surrounded by over enthusiastic undergraduate triathletes and people making peanut butter sandwiches from a Costco supply of peanut butter and wholewheat bread.

Overall I came 78th out of 162 entrants in the men's age group (essentially all adult men). In my age group (25 to 29) I was 11th, coming 10th in the swim, 6th in the bike and 14th in the run. Onwards to Lake Berryessa in April!

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by SS at 10:22 pm on Tuesday 13th January

One of the concepts I've been somewhat enamoured with lately is that of Pareto optimality. I first heard of the idea of Pareto optimality in my secondary school economics class and recently realised it makes a rather good aid to decision making - on the road, and elsewhere.

Pareto optimality (also known as Pareto efficiency) is a concept first referenced by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in the 19th century. When an economy is in a state of Pareto optimality, it is in a state of allocation of resources where it is not possible to make someone better off without making someone else worse off. For instance, if there is a finite amount of electricity, in order for an electricity company to service an additional customer, they need to reduce what is supplied to other customers - i.e. for one person to be better off, the others are worse off.

Most resources are not in a Pareto optimal state in real life because our supply of resources is constantly growing. However, I think the idea of Pareto optimality actually translates to the behaviour of road traffic in most urban scenarios very neatly.

As an actor in the road system, there are a series of rules that govern how I must behave. These rules are necessary to prevent collision, to protect the safety of users of the road system and to ensure fair and orderly flow of traffic. Often collisions happen because expectations of the behaviour of other actors break. This can happens either due to lacking information (as commonly experienced in bicycle collisions where a driver cuts up a cyclist who they didn't see and thus were not expecting to be present) or because an actor behaves in a way that flouts expectations (for instance, a driver running a yellow light).

Of course, where these rules are commonly broken, the expectations of how actors behave change. These expectations, however, are still common amongst the majority of road users - allowing traffic to flow (albeit, often, at increased danger to participants). For instance, in India, is it given that traffic laws are disobeyed. However, for the most part, they appear to be uniformly disobeyed. Lane markings act as guidance more than any hard and fast rule of where your vehicle must travel, so drivers are accustomed to using their horn when a vehicle that is changing trajectory is at imminent risk of colliding with theirs. Equally, drivers listen for these beeps when driving. (There are many more examples of how the road system there actually manages to function without rules and with a billion participants...)

So how does Pareto optimality fit in with this system of rules on the road? Simply, given that a particular traffic situation within the road system is Pareto optimal, my actions as an actor may benefit me but will make another driver worse off. In the aggregate, this doesn't serve to benefit the world at large - and often the benefit to me is minimal.

Before I illustrate this with a few examples, it's worth considering when and when not a traffic situation is Pareto optimal. Pareto optimality is concerned with the allocation of resources - in the traffic sense, I like to think this is when the given capacity is fully allocated. For instance, let's consider my the last segment of commute, through San Francisco from the Powell Street BART station to work (a taxicab distance of 7 blocks).

In the mornings, there is heavy traffic and the first entire block of my trip, just south of Market, is often filled with standing traffic up to the intersection between Mission Street and 5th Street. In this situation, traffic almost behaves like a sliding block puzzle - for there to be space for your vehicle, another vehicle has to move out of the way. Similarly, an intersection can be considered full allocated when every pathway into that intersection is filled with traffic, pedestrian or vehicular.

This specific fully allocated road situation lends itself to my first example - that of running a light. It is clear that this situation is Pareto optimal - if I was to, as a driver or a cyclist, run a red light, it is very likely going to make someone else worse off at the benefit of saving me about a minute. Besides the obvious danger to crossing pedestrians, it will likely cause an entire row of traffic to (in the best case) wait a few seconds, and (in the worst case) have to brake to a halt, depending on the timing of the lights.

Any city cyclist will bemoan the irrationality of traffic lights, particularly when there is no traffic (this often happens to me when cycling past, say, 10pm in the evening). However, this situation is not Pareto optimal - there are plenty of spare resources, and it is possible to jump a red light without making any other road user worse off (albeit at some small risk to your own safety).

Another example where Pareto optimality becomes evident is lane shifting on a busy highway. In California, at least, traffic speed on the highway is fairly uniform - often the leftmost "fast lane" will be traveling only marginally quicker than the rightmost "slow lane". Slower traffic stays right and people move to a left lane to overtake. When there are three or more lanes, this system works reasonably well, and traffic is evenly distributed over the lanes. It breaks down, however, when there are just two lanes. This happens because the speed differential between the slow lane and the fast lane is significant - there are fewer lanes but drivers are still as slow and as fast as on any other highway.

Under heavy traffic, then, the left lane becomes a bottleneck for faster drivers. This results in a nuanced situation where the left lane is fully allocated and therefore Pareto optimal but the right lane is not, due to gaps in traffic. Any action affecting the left lane is likely to make actors worse off. A common action is where drivers in the left lane use the right lane for undertaking. They gain a few car positions and are slightly better off, but given a fully allocated lane, do not manage to increase their overall speed. On the other hand, this action forces an entire stream of cars to brake, thus making them worse off (increased fuel consumption and annoyance).

These two examples illustrate, hopefully, how Pareto optimality might be a useful decision making aid, particularly when commuting around town. When I'm driving or cycling around, it's nice to think about what effect my action will have on other people. If I rush through an intersection, is my gain (usually in time) worth the annoyance, discomfort and inefficiency forced upon other users? Equally, if I'm at a pedestrian crossing at night and there isn't a car in sight, no one is likely to be worse off if I jaywalk.

As for elsewhere, there are several situations where the concept of Pareto optimality has utility. I like to think the outcome of negotiations can often be improved by striving to push them to the Pareto optimality boundary. For instance, if a hypothetical startup is making a deal with a potential customer and the terms of the deal are not at the point where asking for more will make any party worse off (financially or in terms of goodwill), that deal is likely not optimal.

Of course, looking at another type of negotiation: that of a tenant and a landlord, that situation often is Pareto optimal and it's not possible to change the terms of the agreement. Changing the rent would very evidently make one party worse off and another better off.

Hopefully this makes sense and I haven't totally abused one of the fundamental principles of economics!

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by SS at 9:32 pm on Thursday 20th November

Three things restarted this week after a somewhat lengthy absence: 1) precipitation in the Bay Area; 2) me doing physical exercise; and 3) a blog post being published on GeekOnABicycle!

Last week, I finally succumbed and went to the doctor to seek medication for a most persistent chest infection that I've had for about a month. Normally I"m fairly against taking medication (not on any rationale basis, purely as a show of masochism) but this took long enough to clear that I finally got tired of the hacking cough and being unable to cycle up the hill to our apartment. While I'm fairly sure it's a matter of terminology - the doctor who I saw diagnosed me with walking pneumonia (which my doctor friend from the UK dismissed as basically just a chest infection). Still, it was amusing telling friends and relatives that it was pneumonia, "WHY AREN'T YOU IN BED RESTING?".

Going a bit further back in time to the second week of October, two notable things happened. The first was that the results of Escape from Alcatraz triathlon were announced. It, like the London Marathon (and probably like many other events that fellow masochists like to enter), is always oversubscribed to the point where a lottery is used to allocate entries from people who aren't ranked or rated or some other byword for being masochistic enough to have registered with an organising body.

Having entered unsuccessfully last year, I didn't fancy my chances. For some reason, however, this year I was lucky enough to be selected to pay the $400 (plus credit card charge) entry fee to enter the triathlon. My triathlon ambitions go back to the Tour D'Afrique, where just about every fellow EFIer had at some point run a marathon - and a not-insignificant subset of them had also completed Ironman distance triathlons. My reasoning at the time was, for the most part, they had a good 5-10 years on me. Roll around to 2014, 4 years later, and that excuse is starting to look a little feeble.

Still, a fractured kneecap very suddenly put my nascent running career to a halt for about a year and then the grad school applications started rolling out and then back in. Two years later, I'm no longer studying, and nor do I have any injuries that prevent a public commitment to this goal: on June 7th, 2015, I'll be attempting to finish the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon!

After dropping the $400 entry fee on the triathlon, reality began to sink in as my flatmate Erika asked repeatedly if I'd come up with a training plan yet. I still haven't, but decided to ameliorate the situation by signing up to Sports Club LA, an expensive gym-with-swimming-pool that at the time was regarded as second best only to the Equinox series of gyms in San Francisco and is conveniently close to work. (They have since bought Equinox, so now I feel even more like an over-privileged techie.)

Signing up just before the post-Christmas horde of 'guilty-of-over-indulging' San Franciscans yielded me a free month of membership. Little did Sunil of October know that fate would cruelly steal that month back through illness. I guess there's no such thing as a free lunch (except at the typical Bay Area tech company, where the investors pay).

Therefore, the second notable event was that I wasted money on a gym membership. Although to about 95% of people who've ever signed up for gym memberships, this probably isn't notable at all (I'm thinking of you, Aamod).

Anyway, the serious antibiotics I had last week (again, denounced as "overly defensive medical practice" by my doctor friend from the UK) seemed to do nothing at all for 3.5 days and then suddenly left me feeling human again at exactly 84 hours after washing the first pill down with a fine glass of Scotch (joking, I think, my memory of that night was a bit hazy).

While I've still got some latent asthma (thank you, recurring childhood afflictions), I felt well enough yesterday to go for a brief run while it was raining. Thankfully, however, the half hour on the treadmill was fairly dry as I looked out over the Californians panicking at the light drizzle.

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by SS at 4:58 am on Monday 6th October

Slowly, due to circumstances out of my control (actually, that's something of a lie), I've been instrumenting my life less and less. This is odd, being ostensibly a "data engineer" by background and ultimately having a great appreciation for spreadsheets and all things data. It started when I lost Fitbit no. 9 (I didn't buy 9, for what it's worth - they just have great customer service) at the beginning of my time in California. The Fitbit was a revealing gadget, in so much as I realised my daily calorie burn while commuting, sitting at my desk and commuting home was actually rather minimal. It didn't, however, give me the insights I was hoping for about my sleeping habits. I'm a notoriously poor sleeper, which, combined with my thyroid problems, makes my day to day productivity extremely variable.

Trying to work out how well I slept was a combination of the length of time I slept and how well I slept during that time. There are many variables and the Fitbit primarily captured the time I was "asleep" (although that functionality was enabled by you marking the start of your sleep and the end by pushing a button) and my activity during the night. However, the activity metric on its own wasn't directly actionable - knowing that I was much more restless one night than another only really helped if I knew why. Logging other data, like general activity during the preceding day (how much exercise), alcohol, caffeine and food consumption was helpful to validate that all the usual truths mostly hold true. However, what helped the most was controlling the ambient light in my room (in my case, this involved wearing an eye-mask) and controlling the ambient noise (by wearing ear plugs). Most of the time now, I sleep well enough - although it's hard to control the temperature and that seems to affect things.

I found then, that I didn't really miss the Fitbit once I'd lost the final one and decided not to replace it.

A few days before graduation I managed to smash my Nexus 4. Being about the poorest I've ever been in my life then, I replaced it with a Moto G, their budget smartphone. This has similar specifications to the Nexus 4 but a slower processor and half the RAM. At first, I didn't notice this limitation but it's quickly become painfully slow and now I'm holding my breath until the next Nexus phone. While I never was a huge Strava-er, I did enjoy documenting most of my life through photographs. However, the quality of the Moto G's photographs is fairly abysmal and the 30 second delay it takes to fire up the camera application means I've quickly fallen out of the habit of whipping my phone out.

Still, it functions as a messaging device. Our September work offsite to Clear Lake, a lake that is clear but *not* safe to swim in, was "off the grid". I had signal but decided to turn my phone off for the three day stretch regardless. This was extremely liberating but worried some of my friends who thought I had succumbed to a terrible bicycle accident, as I found out when I returned home to a torrent of messages. My parents (who I had told) were amused.

A couple of weeks ago my cycle computer broke. Yesterday, Alex, Armin and I rode the 100+ mile Levi's Gran Fondo, a ride north of San Francisco, starting and finishing in Santa Rosa. My phone battery was perilously close to empty, so I shut it down for the day. Aside from the maps at rest stops (which were, on average, about 15-20 miles apart), I just concentrated on the ride, not caring about my pace, elevation gain or much else, really, besides the growing ache in my legs and the world around me. This took me back to the bike trips Phil and I used to take over summer when we were 17, riding around the Hertfordshire countryside on our mountain bikes. As much of a cliche as it is, I can't help feeling that all this tech has taken something away from the experience of riding a bike. That said, I'm still somewhat competitive at heart and data makes it easier to figure out what you're doing (wrong or right); another gadget will almost certainly enter my life soon.

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by SS at 5:27 pm on Friday 22nd August

Oddly enough, one of my greatest fears as we approached the end of the Master's was that I wouldn't know what to do with all the free time I was about to have. This was a strange fear, but, having worked harder on average for the preceding ten months at Berkeley than I remember working for the four years since my undergraduate, it was somewhat rational.

This fear was ungrounded, as it happens. While the first couple of weeks of work were fairly quiet - most of my colleagues being busy with an office move and/or conference, the work quickly came through, in quantity. An impending product launch and some very real ownership over part of that product has meant that while I'm now working hard - I'm enjoying it thoroughly and this is probably, so far, the best job I've had since my internship on the trading floor.

Most of my graduated colleagues seem to be enjoying work and learning plenty, although I was disheartened by the response of one who I ran into on the train. Me, "how's the new job?", him, "well, it's okay, I guess". Not what you should be saying a month into a new job, in my opinion!

Having an income now is rather nice. I've restocked on clothing - having persevered with multiple pairs of ripped jeans for the best part of the year and undergarments that had seen better days.

Sadly, I managed to rip one of my new pairs of jeans within two weeks of owning it. A couple of weeks ago, it rained in Berkeley for possibly the first or second time since February. Having not practiced my wet weather bike handling skills for some time, I managed to wash out on the corner on the way to the BART station. It must have been at some speed because my knee is still very slightly sore, a few weeks later and I had a surprisingly deep graze on both my right knee and elbow. Still, having to host a work day (essentially a day long interview where we work with a candidate), I limped to work and continued as normal.

On the way home that evening, some clown decided to disrupt the legion of Jay-zed fans who were on their way to his concert in the city by calling in a bomb threat at the West Oakland BART station. Since this is the last station before the under-bay tunnel (I do not know what the actual name of this crossing is), the train services across the bay were shut entirely for a few hours. While I admire the lengths this Jay-zed hater went to antagonise fans, I cursed his timing since I was in no state to cycle anywhere in comfort. Not wanting to drop my bike back to the office, I recruited a couple of bemused BART travellers who were also travelling to Berkeley to share (not split, since I obviously had the extra bike) the cost of an Uber back. Being peak hours (i.e. surge pricing) and requiring an Uber XL to carry my bike, the overall cost was near to $80 - even with the 30% summer discount. More pain.

Getting home at about 9:30, after a long day in the office, I then had to tackle the still notably large list of tasks to complete before leaving. While packing itself was fairly straightforward, I spent some time curating music for the plane journey. However, Cowon J3s (mp3 players) have this rather unique bug where if you remove them without ejecting cleanly from a Mac, they effectively temporarily brick themselves. The amusing thing is that the reason I was curating music was my Cowon had previously been bricked in the same fashion. Still, not remembering to test this before leaving home, I ended up discovering this as I boarded the BART to work the next day and spent the 11 hour flight musicless.

Over the weeks since, I've had great fun working remotely from such exotic locations as the coffee shop in San Francisco International Airport to the coffee shop in Vilnius Airport to the coffee shop in Google's Campus London co-working space. Working from home has been fun too, mainly since the discovery of my grandmother's Oreo stash. Lacking a bicycle, with a recovering knee injury and with plentiful delicious food, I'm definitely returning to the US fatter on Monday.

London has been a flood of nostalgia. This is not entirely unexpected since some of my favourite memories are from the times I've spent roaming around this city, whether on bicycle, foot or Tube. This time, like my last visit back at Christmas, I've added to the list of things I miss about the city - at the moment it's largely practical, including but not limited to: the superior hot chocolate, the expansive public transport network, readily available healthcare and lack of obvious social wealth inequality on every street corner.

Sadly, I realise that many of my closest friends here have now moved on, either physically or with their personal lives (marriages, etc.). This is to be expected, of course, but my social life isn't as rich as it once was. Not to say there's nothing attracting me back, but it certainly feels slightly emptier than it used to. Many of my friends are also working extremely hard now, having moved into positions of responsibility and just generally being successful in their careers. There's nothing different here, although it's worrying that I have a steady base of friends who work too much and are hence single. It's not clear what the solution is here, besides work a little less and get out a little more. That's not to say that I haven't fallen into the same trap.

A funny thing happens when I move between the US and the UK now. I refer to the other place as "home". Perhaps I now truly live between the two countries. Over time, the balance will shift more to the US I suspect, as I become more established there. It's surprising how natural a fit it was to live in California, at least given my interests - this is perhaps the reason most people flock to the Bay Area. That said, London (or Watford) will always remain home for me too, so perhaps home isn't one place but many.

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by SS at 7:45 am on Saturday 26th April

As a data collection (and, often, analysis) nerd, I've collected reasonably accurate data on the cost of the whole process of applying to and attending graduate school. Please don't take any of the below as a recommendation for what to do - it is merely an attempt to rationalise and explain my decision from a PURELY FINANCIAL point of view for others who may be considering a similar career move. Note that my motivation was not solely financial and yours probably shouldn't be - if you don't want to be completely miserable for a year or more! The numbers below are all deliberately imprecise - so make your own calculations if you need to. Note also that these figures are for software engineering jobs!

Let's start off with my salary in London before I started my Master's degree. My last position, at Last.fm, paid 37,000 a year. At Last.fm (a subsidiary of CBS Corporation), there was no salary progression and no bonus because they like employees to be dissatisfied with both leadership and their compensation ;-).

I lived with my parents and commuted into work - this meant my monthly disposable income, after taxes, healthcare, commute, food and student loan repayment costs was approximately 1,000. (Note that if I had been living in London and paying rent, my disposable income would have been considerably closer to 0. Also note that if I didn't have so much stuff wrong with me, I would have saved a fair chunk on healthcare.) For two years this money went straight into savings which I have since depleted to pay for tuition.

The overall year cost of the degree was approximately $70,000. Less if you live frugally, more if you don't. I managed to save money on the estimated graduate student budget provided by the university which is excessive if you know how to cook a little and don't eat out all the time. (Prepare your own caffeine too - coffee shops are expensive and you WILL develop a coffee habit as a graduate student here!)

My burn rate here is approximately $2,000 a month - including rent at $800 a month, food, travel and a modest amount of social. I expect that as I start to have free time when starting to work, I'll be spending more a month - closer to $2,500 a month.

Typical salaries for new software engineers with a Master's degree in the Bay Area range between $100K and $125K, depending on your level of experience and the location. Factor in the cost of owning a car if you live in the South Bay, as well as higher rents. If you work in San Francisco, you can quite easily commute in from Berkeley and pay the same rent. If you wish to move to San Francisco though, expect to pay at least $2K a month in rent. Rents in the South Bay (i.e. Silicon Valley) are about $1500. Rent inflation is high though, so I'd advise checking the market rate closer to when you make your decision.

(A side note: Amazon's offer was comparable for the first year - they offer a $90K base salary with a $20K bonus. This is amusing because the immediate cash bonus is a huge incentive for hapless graduates to sign. While rent and tax is lower in Seattle than California, I feel that pegging your base salary at $20K lower than employers in this area is likely to have repercussions in the future if you do choose to move.)

(Another side note: I'm beginning to wonder if international students/hires are offered lower starting salaries than applicants with permanent residency (i.e. a green card) or citizenship. I have very little data to confirm this but it's a growing hunch.)

Assuming the worst case, which is a $100K starting salary and living in San Francisco and approximating tax to 40%, this works out to a rough monthly income of $5,000. Assuming $1,500 worth of living expenses plus $2,000 in rent, this leaves a disposable income of $1,500 a month. This is considerably better than the situation in London where disposable income was close to 0 when renting your own accommodation. However, there's the obvious $70K that has been spent. Assuming no interest rate, a constant income, constant expenses and a diligent saving regime, this will take 46.6 months, or about 4 years to pay off.

Taking the best case, which is a $125K starting salary and commuting in, that gives us a rough monthly income of $6,250. Expenses, as previously mentioned, of about $2,500 - which leaves a disposable income of $3,750. Again, under the same assumptions, we should be able to pay off the $70K in 18.6 months, or about a year and a half.

This figures are based on the assumption that you'll be attending a year long program and do not get any sort of financial aid. I appreciate that many Master's courses are longer - but the actual increase in cost isn't directly proportional to the length of the program since students often get well paid summer internships which offset the extra semester or quarter well. In addition, there's opportunity in courses greater than a year long to get research or teaching assistantships which offset the tuition cost significantly.

Finally, the obvious question is - why not apply for a job in the US directly and save yourself the $70K cost? The answer is: access to employers. The obvious geographic advantage of being able to interview with employers aside, the immigration situation is notoriously tight and, as a non-US citizen, getting work authorization is difficult. As a Master's student, you have the ability to work legally here for a year post-graduation under 'Optional Practical Training'. If you study a STEM subject, there is an optional 17 month extension which helps too. During this period, students can apply for a H1B visa under a separate category reserved for applicants with a Master's or higher level degree from a US university. (They may also apply under the normal category, I hear that it is variable whether this category is over or undersubscribed relative to the normal category.)

I firmly believe that moving to this area has been one of the best things I can do for my career, earning potential aside. Just about every large technology company in the world has an office or their headquarters within 60 miles of where I live. This element of choice means that I can acquire work experience in highly attractive technologies and don't need to compromise on employer. (This compromise happens all too often in London for computer science graduates who have to make the trade off between a high salary in financial services or interesting work in a pure technology company. Here, I think it's possible to have both.)

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by SS at 6:55 am on Saturday 26th April

I came to the MEng program having worked for three years and travelled for a year before then - essentially four years out of my undergraduate degree in Computer Science. Even then, the last time I studied maths seriously was in the first year of my undergraduate degree, so about seven years before starting the MEng. That being the case, there were a number of subjects I'd wish I'd brushed up on before starting my coursework at UC Berkeley.

The courses I took were Advanced Robotics, Computer Vision, Introduction to Machine Learning and Applications of Parallel Computing. I'll start with general advice and talk about specific tips for each course at the end. These are roughly in order of how important I think they are.

1) Linear Algebra: This is by far the most important area of maths to cover if you study any sort of graphics or AI course. It was heavily used in all four of my courses. There's a great tutorial online here which is actually written by a UC Berkeley professor. Know this well and you'll spend much less time looking up the basics.

2) Statistics: Know your basic probability and distribution rules. Most of AI is heavily statistics based - in particular, Machine Learning is a lot of statistics and most popular successful AI techniques now tend to be probabilistic. Sebastian Thrun has a great overview paper and is the author of the main text on this area.

3) Optimisation: Optimisation is heavily used in the Advanced Robotics course and appears to be crucial for a lot of cutting edge computer science. I had NO idea what this was before starting and this put me at a significant disadvantage. Learn how to formulate basic optimisation problems at the very least. This book by Stephen Boyd is the definitive text on the subject.

4) Matlab: Matlab is a programming language / development environment that is heavily used by academics. As a software engineer, I particularly dislike programming in it - however, most homeworks assume you will be using it and so most examples and starter code is written in Matlab. While you can submit assignments in Python or other languages, the path of least resistance is to use Matlab. Matlab offers a student license but the department should pay for a license for MEng students. In the meantime, you can use the open source Octave software, which is syntactically very similar.

5) C++: If you intend on taking the Applications of Parallel Computing class (highly recommended - it is excellent) or implementing any actual robotics code, you would do well to become familiar with writing and running C++ programs.

6) Linux: It's useful to have some basic ability with the Linux shell and to have a Linux virtual machine set up. You may or may not use this - depending on whether you take systems level classes or not. I recommend installing Linux Mint in Virtualbox.

7) Git / GitHub: Source control will make your life a lot easier. Learn this well and it will make collaborating with peers on homeworks and your capstone project much, much better. Try the brief interactive tutorial on GitHub.

8) Advanced Robotics: Regardless of what it might imply, this course does not rely on the Introduction to Robotics course. Introduction to Robotics is more about robotic manipulators and 'traditional' robotics. Advanced Robotics is more about the theoretical underpinnings of the algorithms to allow planning, localisation and state estimation. It is not practical at all (much to my disappointment) and is very state of the art. I often struggled to understand the motivation for several techniques until the end of the course. However, you'll find that you know most cutting edge techniques by the end of the semester. It also assumes prior coursework similar to the undergraduate Introduction to AI course at UC Berkeley - so I advise taking Sebastian Thrun's Introduction to AI course on Udacity if you haven't taken anything similar before. This is a hard class but thoroughly satisfying once you complete it!

9) Computer Vision: This is a great course taught by a pair of very energetic, enthusiastic professors (Malik and Efros). Highly recommended.

10) Introduction to Machine Learning: Taught by the same professors as Computer Vision, this class suffers from it's large size - being primarily and undergraduate class. The work load is high but the skills learned are very practical. I'd recommend it but it requires a strong stats background.

11) Applications of Parallel Computing: While the course content itself focusses heavily on scientific computing, the homeworks assignments are very practical and very fun. One of my favourite courses so far.

12) Collaborating: Something I realised quickly was that it was very useful to work together on homeworks with my peer group. You'll often find that you can work together to fill in gaps in each other's background - which is essential when you're coming from another country with a different educational background and sometimes lacking pre-requisite coursework. I wasn't able to work with many people for the Advanced Robotics course and this made the experience almost intolerably difficult. On the other hand, working with motivated peers who were also taking Computer Vision made that class much more enjoyable.

I hope this advice helps - feel free to chime in in the comments below!

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by SS at 6:15 am on Saturday 26th April

A number of the incoming MEng students have asked for advice when making their decision to come to Berkeley and one question appeared repeatedly - is the MEng degree regarded any differently by employers to a conventional MS?

From my personal experience interviewing at ~ 14 tech. companies in the Bay Area and having spoken to recruiters and so on - no, it is not.

Generally the Master's degree will get you a slight hike in starting salary but the rest of the process will usually be the same as graduate applicants with a Bachelor's degree. Employers typically hire university graduates into the same entry level software engineer positions (unless you have prior experience - and even then, this will account for a neglible salary hike, since they'll anchor your salary to a 'new grad' salary).

To an employer, a Master's degree is a Master's degree - regardless of whether it is a Master of Engineering or a Master of Science. They may question why it is shorter than normal but the retort to this is that it is a professional program - and not intended to be preparation for a PhD.

The main caveat with getting the MEng degree appears to be its lack of preparation for a PhD program. It isn't the case that having a MEng from Berkeley will make it any easier to get into a PhD program since, aside from some graduate level coursework, you won't have additional research experience. (Although it may slightly upgrade your resume if you went to an unheard of school previously.)

I would also advise prospective applicants to take with a pinch of salt the claims that employers covet the 'Engineering Leadership' aspect of the courses. While these courses are valuable in their own right and may help alumni to advance up the management ladder faster, most employers aren't aware of this aspect of the program and look more for engineering talent than management promise in their new graduate hires.

At some point I will follow up this post with a more detailed one outlining my interview experience and suggestions for how to approach your job hunt. (Be warned, it involves creating a spreadsheet, so get rid of any prejudice against spreadsheets now.) Generally though, in the Bay Area, it is extremely easy to get interviews for CS positions and I don't see any reason why, with adequate preparation, any MEng graduate should be forced to accept an offer they aren't completely enthusiastic for. Indeed, I was able to get my role of choice at a very exciting startup.

(Note I mention CS positions. Product management positions are much harder to come by. Also, other majors sometimes struggle to find jobs.)

1 comment posted so far
wrote at 11:48 am on Sat 8th Aug -
Is the situation really that bad for operations research graduates in M eng as suggested by your text in the parenthesis at the end

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by SS at 7:37 am on Tuesday 22nd April

The end is quite clearly in sight. Although I wasn't looking out for it, it's come straight at us, like a hapless raft approaching Victoria Falls. Well, not quite like that, but whatever, I'm not great at analogies.

Another thing I recently didn't see approaching was the pothole just outside our flat's carport on Panoramic Hill. In a somewhat sleep deprived and annoyed state, I cycled up the hill and veered rapidly to the right as a careless SUV driver careened down the hill towards me. As it turns out, he decided to stop somewhere up the hill and I didn't need to evacuate my road position as quickly as I thought. It also turns out that the dark, water-marked road surface was hiding a rather unpleasant occupant - a small pothole about the depth of an American cup. (For my British readers, this is about 250% the height of a typical English tea cup.) Luckily, I fared better than my last brush with potholes - electing to fall comically to my side into a puddle rather than somersaulting multiple times over my handlebars at 60 kmph.

Either way, the point is - this Master's program is very nearly over. If last semester flew past at great speed, this semester has somehow flown past at an even greater speed. We have just under 4 weeks until graduation and the deadline for submitting my Master's thesis has since passed. Luckily it turns out the professors who have kindly agreed to read it don't need 4 weeks to read 15 pages of double spaced text. Phew. What this means though, is that while my colleagues are beginning to wind down (just a little), I still have this cloud hanging over me. Soon though, it will be gone!

The last 5 weeks of so have given me a rather interesting taste of life in the Bay Area. On the BART into San Francisco, I struck up conversation with a chap sitting next to me. He seemed normal enough - at least for this area, working as a freelance graphic designer and having tattoos on his hands, arms and a rather disturbing bandage on his neck. He mentioned he had been mugged earlier in Oakland and was struggling to figoure out how to get home to north of San Francisco - having lost his laptop, wallet and phone and having been unable to get hold of his friends using the numbers he knew. Long story short, I decided to give him some money to get home and he promised to PayPal it back to me. I didn't hear back from him.

A couple of days later, Gita and I performed some actual work in Oakland using our unmanned aerial vehicles. While I was waiting for Gita to arrive, I noticed a guy walking away on the pavement with a unique bandage on his neck. Looking closer, I realised it was the same chap who I'd lent money too. I didn't manage to catch him up but at least I know the Oakland part of his story was probably true. Oh well, there's a small chance my act of charitable giving might have made someone's day a little better and I'll take what I can get.

Gita and I spent most of the rest of the day performing an aerial survey for a local architecture firm who are designing an extension to the Bay Trail that will connect it to Lake Merritt, a lake in Oakland. This is a bicycle and walking/running trail that will eventually encircle the entire Bay Area. Details of safely operating a robot in public aside, the photographs taken by the borrowed GoPro we used were somewhat unique and I'm somewhat proud of them. You can see a sample of these here on our lab's webpage.

That weekend, in San Francisco, I wandered out to pick up some takeaway food. 15 minutes after I reached my friend's apartment there was a drive-by shooting just a block away. I found this somewhat fascinating but my more rational friend was visibly shaken by the incident.

The final, more amusing incident, was that in the course of organising a singing telegram for my friend's birthday (a gift that my friend had apparently wanted for years: Americans are odd), I submitted a quote request online. This quote request was miscategorised as a request for a clown and over two days I received about 15 phone calls from local Bay Area clowns soliciting for business. In the end a singing gorilla was actually organised and was received very well.

While there's still a steady pipeline of work to finish, I can already taste the sweet freedom that I'm sure to get bored of eventually. (The grass is always greener, right?) I'm looking forward to being able to sleep consistently, exercise consistently and to having time to cook for myself. I'm also looking forward to having an income and feeling less anxious everytime I pay for food and drink! See you on the warmer, greener other side.

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"Our thoughts define our reality." - Anon.