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My greatest achievement in WoW

Video Games | Thursday, October 19th, 2006 | 10 years, 9 months ago

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Trans Nerdo Express

Blather | Monday, October 16th, 2006 | 10 years, 9 months ago

Just a quickie today since I’m still recovering from a bad cold and haven’t been motivated to write lately.

My business trip to Google was certainly the highlight of my trip to Mountain View, CA, but there is definitely one more point of interest I’d like to share for posterity – Caltrain. Caltrain is a Japanese baby bullet train system spanning about 50 miles from San Jose to San Francisco. These cuties arrive every 10 to 60 minutes depending on the time of day (probably 40 minutes on average), travel over 80 miles per hour, and are phenomenally comfortable. I hopped on Caltrains a few times during my stay – once to go for dinner in nearby Palo Alto (near Stanford U) and once to go to San Francisco – and as nice as my destinations were, I honestly enjoyed the trip even more!

Watashi wa Caltrain, desu! Kawaii!!

Watashi wa Caltrain, desu! Kawaii!!

There are about 25 intermediate stops between San Francisco and San Jose, with a few more limited-use stations extending southeast to Gilroy. Rush hour trains stop at every station, while express trains blaze past as many as 85% of them. It’s well advised to grab a schedule pamphlet since you never really know whether the train you’re on will be stopping at your desired destination. The trip from Mountain View to Palo Alto as well as the ride back each took about 10 minutes. The trip to San Francisco from Mountain view, stopping at every stop, took about an hour and a quarter. The express train back, stopping at about 6 stops (and thankfully Mountain View) took only 45 minutes.

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Stations are classified in numbered zones, and fares depend on the number of zones spanned. My trip all the way to Millbrae Station, near the San Francisco airport, cost only $3.75.

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An automated Caltrain ticket kiosk

The ticket machines were rather nifty, though I emitted the distinct fragrance of eaudenoob as I fumbled trying to figure the thing out. I was ticketing like a pro after the first round of confusion, though. Just insert card (but not Amex – no workey), press the button for the zone of your destination, and it prints the ticket and receipt.

Caltrain works on something of an honour system. Tickets are purchased in the station and must be kept on your person, but my ticket was only verified by a Caltrain employee on the trips to and from San Fran. The ticket checkers were exceptionally courteous, polite, and patient.

So was everyone, in fact. The driver announced each station in a ridiculously chipper demeanour, chittering little witticisms like “San Antonio station next! Not San Antonio Texas, mind you!” and “Brrrrrrroadway station next! If you can make it there you’ll make it anywhere!” He even announced that there were tourists from Germany onboard and asked everyone to assist them in finding their way! The attendants standing at some of the doors were friendly and chatty as well. It was truly refreshing to be in the company of people who certainly enjoy their jobs assisting people so much.

Once on the train I was treated to some very comfortable accommodations. The first feature that became apparent was the double-decker seating. By each door were two pairs of metal staircases leading up to the top floor of single-row seating. A flat metal storage area separating the upstairs seats was perfect for stowing luggage. I was sure to grab an upper seat to and from San Fran and I was not disappointed by the view! Seats on both levels were very comfortable, gave good back support, and were sufficiently moulded so that you don’t squish into your neighbour. Some seating quartets surrounded a little table for in-transit tete-a-tetes. Some cars had huge bicycle racks with bungee cords. Hallways were nice and wide so it was never uncomfortable to squeeze past the small crowds of standing travellers. Surprisingly, there were unisex bathrooms at the front of every car!

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Interior view from upstairs.

Between the screeching brakes and the blaring triple-horn there’s no question when a Caltrain is arriving at a station or speeding through an intersection, but onboard the vehicle is as quiet as a mouse. The ride was exceptionally smooth and not at all bumpy, and I felt very stable in my seat even while braking from full speed.

The passengers on Caltrain were awesome! I didn’t see a single suit-clad soul aboard, and EVERYONE was talking about nerdy computer stuff! No doubt this was due to my embarking in the heart of Silicon Valley, but it was really refreshing and entertaining to hear such candid conversation about local but enormous businesses like McAffee and A9.

Once again, the view from the upper seats was very lovely. I passed through some seedier areas peppered with anti-Bush graffiti and intricately lettered gang tags, but even those areas were rife with architectural and local charm. I passed by community centres, suburban areas, strip malls and mega stores, and they were built in an earthy-peach hue with deco-style patterned trim near the roofs. It was quite charming; especially as the mountains came into view (which they are not, ironically, in Mountain View).

Having lived in Calgary for 10 years I’m no stranger to mountains, but it was really lovely and majestic to see mountains devoid of snow in California. Some mountains were arid and brown with seemingly chiseled details, others were lush and green and the faraway trees appeared as a kind of mossy putting green. Some mountains were speckled with tremendously huge mansions and hotels, juxtaposing my feeling of homeyness with an aire of unattainability. Some peaks were crowned by thick fog, completely obscuring the vertex.

One of the most fascinating and beautiful sights revealed itself as I approached South San Francisco. What first appeared as a couple of neighbourhoods of humble square-ish houses, coloured in bland earthy pastels, became a rolling sea of uniquely coloured dwellings like donut sprinkles topping a wavy cake. I’m incredibly sorry that I didn’t have a camera to capture this sight (and disappointed that I can’t find a photo on Google Images) because it was this poorer suburb, not the towering stores of the city, that really struck me.

If you find yourself in San Jose, San Francisco, or somewhere between, plot a course somewhere along the Caltrain route. Caltrain is public transit done right.

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The sum of a hundred zeroes

Nerdliness | Saturday, October 7th, 2006 | 10 years, 9 months ago

This past week I had the great privilege of attending partner training at Google’s headquarters, nicknamed Googleplex, in Mountain View, CA. I worked with the Google Search Appliance – a product line of Google search servers of varying scopes designed to index enterprise assets like Word documents, PDFs, web pages, databases, and much more. I can’t say too much about my ideas and concerns about the product, but there’s a pretty thorough description of the inner workings and case studies at Google’s Enterprise and Code websites.

But that stuff is boring anyway, right? I’ll enthusiastically talk about my experience at Googleplex, which was indeed a very fascinating and surreal place!Pulling into the campus in a taxi, I knew something cool was in store when I saw Google-coloured pylons directing traffic past a young, casual security guard sitting on a Google-emblazoned lounge chair. He nonchalantly waved us past and we pulled up to building 40. I was early so I took a little stroll around, noting the odd architecture of the structures surrounding a huge grassy courtyard featured with some benches and a good-sized beach volleyball pit. A glance around the corner revealed a large outdoor eating area with over a hundred tables, some of which were quite large with many chairs surrounding. Many walls and columns had printed signs advertising lectures and workshops on odd topics such as proper nutrition, spirituality and computing, and attaining better job satisfaction. Powered and motorless scooters were parked neatly every several feet along the walkways with no sign-out sheets in sight. A yellow brick road would probably have helped me string these fantastical pipe-dreams into the realization that this was an actual workplace and I was present there.

Despite the huge signs and directional markers it took me a little while to find the entrance to building 40 as I was rather overwhelmed by the attractive landscaping and beautiful weather. When I found the front door I was greeted by a very friendly receptionist who invited (more than instructed) me to use the terminal in front of her to fill out a guest registration web form. I typed in my pertinents, signed a digital pad, and a pass printed on a label which I affixed to my business-casual shirt which, in context, was feeling pretty business-formal compared to everyone else I saw.

I was still a little flustered by my humbling surroundings so it didn’t really register when the receptionist welcomed me to take a bottled beverage from the nearby fridge. A bit dazed, I waddled over, gave what must have been a bit of a pleadingly befuddled look, and asked “may I?” With her smiley consent I spent nearly 60 seconds surveying brand after brand of water, no-sugar-added juice frappes, milk and shakes, and iced teas and coffees. I grabbed one and took one of the more normal looking plush seats next to a slightly intimidating electric massage chair.

Before long the other guests and I were guided up some stairs and through a few halls to our meeting room. The polish of the exterior layout didn’t quite continue indoors. In true Google style the building felt a little beta, with walls streaked with rubbery skidmarks and thick CAT5e bundles spindled about exposed ceiling beams like blue and grey genetic helices. Further signs (like those pointing to massage therapist and doctor services) and wonders (like free arcade and pinball machines) clouded my senses moreso until our short guided tour ended at the Vienna meeting room.

The meeting room, where I’d spend most of the next 4 days in training, was well equipped but unspectacular. Adorning the plain white walls were whiteboards, a pair of expensive-looking projectors aimed at retractable screens, and a duet of oddly shaped clear plastic speakers. Each attendee’s place was set with IBM and Mac laptop power plugs, a CAT5 network cable, and an exceptionally comfortable chair coloured in one of the Google logo’s hues. It didn’t take long for us to learn that the projector was a bit shakey and the power was a little unstable. Despite the lack of windows I felt comfortable, if understimulated, in the Vienna room.

My rumbling tummy beckoned Google to challenge it with the finest feasts it could muster. At the end of the day, my tummy would eat those words even more heartily than the sumptuous unending banquet offered to the metropolis of proud logo-wearing citizens of this corporate cruise ship.

The food. Holy crap. Oh my goodness. The food. Gracious. The food. Good golly.

Curried calamari with pine nuts, jasmine rice, and naan. Sweet and sour pork with sticky rice, garlic bok choy, and sweet tofu and vegetable stir-fry. Four cheese and mushroom calzones, mini goat cheese pizzas, and whole wheat pasta with vegan tomato cream sauce. Burgers and hot dogs. A grill-your-own-sandwich station. Two salad bars. Two dessert bars. Bottled and on-tap beverages everywhere. This is a FRACTION of what was served at any ONE meal.

But a feast for the tongue and eyes isn’t enough to satiate Google. I must have clicked an “I’m feeling lucky!” button somewhere because one afternoon our lunch was accompanied by the prepubescent warblings of Good Charlotte who was taxied in from San Jose where they were playing later that night. They performed 3 quick songs, but a free lunch was still too high an admission price for such a cacophonous foray into teeniebopperism so I literally retreated indoors after 2.

Security was hardcore at Googleplex. All eyes were on us even while we were led like cattle through hallways on the way to lunch. I swear the security guards were more lax than the engineers who leered at us and sometimes “asked” us if they could help direct us somewhere, elsewhere, away. Signs near security doors stressed “no piggybacking”, insisting employees use their badges to traverse all checkpoints. We guests, if we left the group to go outside for lunch, had to take the roundabout route via the front desk (and past my beloved beverage fridge) just to get back to the cafe that was otherwise one door away. No photographs of the premises were permitted, though quizzically there was a photography crew with a semi- (maybe quarterly-) attractive female model sprawling over the reception area chairs one morning.

Google is a fantasyland for engineers. I’d love to work there but I don’t know how much work I’d actually do! I really wonder whether all this spending on accommodations and luxuries per-employee really pays off in productivity. I kind of hope so! That way I can persuade my bosses to implement what I call the “curry and rockband strategy”.

I’ll speak of my other Excellent Adventures in California soon!

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