“It’s complicated”

Delicious ribs
[image by Nathan Marx]

You know what’s on my mind a lot since that fateful day? Food.

I don’t care what you’ve learnt from respectable business people. I don’t care what you’ve read from popular entrepreneur blogs. I don’t care what you’ve heard from podcasts about start-ups.

If you’re a bootstrapping entrepreneur, if you’re starting a business with practically nothing, the thing you worry about the most is where your next meal is coming from. Or positive cash flow. I’m still of two minds which one of them is more important.

“So, what do you do?”

I was hanging out with a couple of my friends. One of them said 2 other friends of his wanted to join us. All of us met up, briefly introduced ourselves and went to have dinner.

After we sat down and gave our dinner orders, one of the newly met friends asked what our jobs were. An uncomfortable feeling was already creeping up my neck.

Let me give you some dating advice. Do not ask your date what his or her job is. At least not on the first date. What if he sells niche collectible cards on Ebay? What if she’s a professional pole dancer? What if he’s an undertaker? What if she’s an artist of yarn? What are you going to talk about after you know the answer?

If you expect a standard answer, that the other person works at such-and-such a company, doing such-and-such activities in the position of such-and-such, then don’t ask. Many people work at jobs that they hate. It might not tell you a lot about their interests and character. It’s the “the sex and cash” theory. What people do to feed themselves may be different from what they do for enjoyment. If you’re dating, find out more about the enjoyment part first.

So anyway, I was the last to talk about what I do for a living. “Uh, it’s complicated.” I replied. One of my friends explained, “He’s an entrepreneur.” That word hung in the air, laughing at my puny attempts to live up to the definition. That word palpably changed the density of the air around us, making sound harder to pass through that solidifying wall of nothingness. That word made me question, just for a second, the decision I made in March.

And then time started moving again. Our new friends had no follow up conversation. As expected.

Luckily, there was food in front of us. I started to grab a stalk of leafy vegetable with my chopsticks…

“Wah, on leave again?

There is this McDonald’s near my house that I frequent. “McDonald’s?!?” I hear you say. “Fast food? Blasphemy!”

Hey, when I was holding on to a job, I bought a McChicken and an apple pie for dinner almost every weekday. I ate that, then exercise, and then take a protein shake. I’m not obese by any stretch of the word. Then again, I don’t know anything about my arteries…

Anyway, I frequent that fast food restaurant so often that the staff know me (the ones that stayed long enough anyway). One of them, a friendly middle-aged woman, likes to make small talk with me (possibly because I’m of the rare type of customer who can make small talk and joke with service staff). So after I started working for myself, I’ve started visiting that McDonald’s during *drum roll* office hours.

“Wah, today you on leave ah?” she asked in her Singlish slang.

I took one full second before nodding my head as the most expedient method of explaining why I’m at McDonald’s during office hours. Many weeks after that, during which I’ve used that expedient answer many times, I decided I needed to tell her the truth. If nothing else, at least that the “on leave” thing is false.

So I stepped into the restaurant one afternoon, feeling the cool air hit me after walking in the blistering sun for the better part of 15 minutes. Behind the counter, her face lit up with a smile. “Wah, Vincent-boy!” Yes, we’re on first name basis… I stepped up to the counter, and was preparing to give my order, when she interrupted me.

“Wah, on leave again?” she asked.

This was it.

“Actually, uh, I’m working from home.” I replied.
“Aahh… so what you want today? We have this special promotion…”

Ok, technically it’s not exactly false. I am working from home. I just didn’t tell her I’m not working at a job any more. It’s complicated, you know. I don’t think she’s ready to hear me explain. I don’t think I’m ready to explain to her.

I just need to feed myself

And preferably able to pay the bills. I don’t need to make it big. I just need to be ramen profitable.

Ramen profitable means a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses.
– Paul Graham

That’s what I said. To be able to eat. I mean, there’s a food name in the term “ramen profitable”.

It’s legally a company, but you feel like you’re lying when you call it one.

Sometimes, I feel the same way if I call myself an entrepreneur…

Startups usually have to do something weird at first.

Tell me about it…

Ok, I do need to make it big. I just don’t need to make it big immediately (or soon, or now, or yet). World changing efforts need to be big, because the world is big. Big in idea. Big in inspiration. Big in imagination. Big in motivation. Big in hope. Big in that something awesome will come out of it, and a lot of people will benefit from it.

Did you know that the highest degree a Freemason can obtain is 33? By the way, it’s my birthday today.

First odd prime birthday

Children at a birthday party

Actually I forgot the actual date. I thought it was today, but it turned out to be yesterday. Oops. Sorry, blog.

So yesterday, 12 June 2010, Polymath Programmer turned 3 years old. *trumpets flare, streamers float and white doves fly into the air* Originally, I wanted to keep it quiet. No fuss, no muss. Just continue writing stuff you’d find interesting. Then I remembered that June 2010 was special to me personally.

Hence, in a whirlwind of idea creation, I want to thank you for reading Polymath Programmer. If you are one of the first 3 people to email me (or if you prefer the contact form) with the subject header “Polymer Birthday” (within this month, you know, because it doesn’t make sense next month…), you will get:

  • A postcard sent to you from Singapore, with a personal message from me.
  • The next 3 issues of Singularity for free. I’ll even give you the current June 2010 issue as a bonus.
  • The Secret History of Polymath Programmer.

[UPDATE: 2 people have “won”. Only 1 left. Start emailing…]
[UPDATE: All prizes taken. I thank the 3 people who emailed me.]

I will obviously require that you provide your physical address for the postcard to work. I promise it will be kept confidential, and will only be used to send the postcard to you. But if you’re not comfortable, I can scan the postcard with the message and send you the image. Either way, you’re getting a postcard.

As for the secret history thing, I will tell you things that few people ever know about Polymath Programmer and me. I’ll tell you why June 2010 is special. You’d probably laugh. You might sympathise with me. Hey, if nothing else, you’ll feel good. Everyone loves secrets.

And if you’re looking to advertise in Singularity, you’re in luck. If you contact me within this month, you get a heavily discounted rate. (click here for more details)

That’s it. Enjoy the rest of June. It might even be summer for you. I can completely relate to you, being in ever-summer-Singapore.

[image by Rich Legg]

Birthdays and paradoxes

I was sitting down, thinking of an amusing article to write, and I didn’t quite feel up to writing. It’s been a long weekend, and besides, it’s a special day for me today.

32 years old

So I thought, “What the heck”.

Then I thought I should at least leave you with something. So I’ll introduce you to the concept of the birthday paradox. Basically, given a group of 23 people, what’s the percentage chance that any 2 persons in that group share the same birthday? (hint: it’s higher than you think. Here’s a less clinical explanation of the paradox than the one from Wikipedia.).

Conversation with a blog

Blog: You’re staring at me again.
Me: What?
Blog: You’ve been staring at me for 15 minutes now. Got the writer’s block, huh?
Me: I’m thinking, ok? … What’s it to you anyway?
Blog: It’s just painful watching you type a few words, stare, type a bit, delete, and stare again.
Me: Well, I’ve got the main points. I just need to fill in the details.
Blog: …
Me: That’s not really why you’re talking to me, are you? So what’s up?

Blog: It’s just, well …
Me: Yes?
Blog: I, *shift position*, uh…
Me: Uh huh?
Blog: … uh *suddenly perks up* what about Saving Private Ryan?
Me: What?
Blog: You know, that guy you stuck in the stone ruins?
Me: *raise eye brow*
Blog: He solved some puzzle, and then you got him to go into the underground cave?
Me: Oh, right. I was going to save him. I mean I am going to save him. And he’s not a private. He’s not even in the military.
Blog: So what is he?
Me: Ryan’s a programmer, and also very good at solving puzzles. And I’m revealing too much already. Hey, are you taking down notes? *rising tone of alarm*
Blog: Uh huh.
Me: Hey delete that! You can’t publish that. All the mystery would be out.
Blog: Your readers will want to know what’s going to happen.
Me: Yes, of course. I have the story all mapped out. I just need to come up with an appropriate puzzle.
Blog: Riiight…
Me: Hey, it’s hard coming up with something unique, ok? I want to introduce a concept, it has to be moderately hard to figure out, and it has to fit into the story. It’s just hard ok?

Blog: I see you’re also slacking off. *checks files* You’re not posting as much.
Me: I’m re-prioritising. There’s a difference.
Blog: Semantics.
Me: Well, it’s just … my readers don’t seem to be talking to me much. They don’t seem to want to talk about what I wrote too. I don’t know if what I wrote was complete brilliance or utter rubbish. Either one could be the reason for their inertia.
Blog: Why don’t you just ask them?
Me: I did! At least I thought I did. A few people replied, probably out of pity *voice cracks, small voice* Can’t believe I’m talking to some nosy writing software…
Blog: Hey! I resent that.
Me: *smiles* I’m sorry. You’re a good friend. Oh yeah, where’s my contact page?
Blog: *points at a spot*
Me: Right. See? People can ask me any questions with that, or tell me I’m right on this or wrong on that or …

Blog: …
Me: Something’s still on your mind. Alright, cough it up. What’s going on?
Blog: It’s just, I’ve worked very hard for you.
Me: Yes, I know. And I thank you for it.
Blog: I mean, I displayed *checks some files* 197 posts for you.
Me: Wow! Has it been that many?
Blog: And got my friend, Defensio, to keep out spam. *checks another file* Like 2820 of them.
Me: Oh my goodness!
Blog: I work day and night …
Me: I work nights too …
Blog: *sniffs* 24 hours a day …
Me: I appreciate that …
Blog: 7 days a week. *sniffs* I even changed my entire outfit for you!
Me: Hey …
Blog: And what have you done for me? *voice cracks*
Me: Wait, are you crying?

Blog: Do you even know what day today is?
Me: Uh, it’s a Thursday?
Blog: *flips through folder, and grabs a sheet of paper* Here!
Me: *takes paper and read* … Oh, that’s my first post! Did I really write that? Oh man, that’s so embarrassing…
Blog: *bawls* Look at the date!
Me: Ok, ok… it’s 12 June, year 2007. What’s so speci… oh. Today’s 12 June, isn’t it?
Blog: *bawls some more*
Me: Hey hey hey… *grabs tissue paper and hand it over* Please stop crying.
Blog: *sniffs, wipe tears*
Me: I’m sorry, ok? You’re one year old today, aren’t you?

Blog: *nods*
Me: Happy birthday! I’m sorry, I totally forgot about it…
Blog: *tightens lips, eyes tearing*
Me: Hey, hey, hear me out! I’m sorry I didn’t get you a present.
Blog: *wipes tears*
Me: I have some plans, and one of them involves making you popular.
Blog: *in small voice* Really?
Me: Alright, maybe not celebrity popular, but more well-known. I’m also thinking of …
Blog: Not talking about math formulas?
Me: Getting some sponsorship … what? Hey, math is what makes you stand out, you know?
Blog: It does?
Me: It’s not like I write about differentiation of math equations… well, at least not yet.
Blog: Well, write more about programming stuff.
Me: I can’t exactly go around answering non-existent programming questions, can I? I’m looking…
Blog: Well, look harder. *sniff* I’m starting to feel a little lonely.
Me: It takes time and effort. I’m trying really hard…

Blog: There’s a programming party going on at Alltop, and I just barely got invited. It sucks to not know anybody.
Me: Hey, tone down your language.
Blog: You use the word “suck”.
Me: Well, I’m different. I’m a grown up.
Blog: Not by very much it seems. You still get mistaken for a student.
Me: Well, I have boyishly good looks… wait a minute, are you still taking notes?
Blog: Uh huh.
Me: Don’t you dare publish that! … Oh dear, it’s already published, isn’t it?
Blog: I’m a blog. That’s what I do.
Me: *groans*
Blog: Relax. Think of it as a birthday present for me.
Me: Right. *sighs*
Blog: And remember that popular thing.
Me: Of course. Now go bother someone else on the Internet, I’ve got some writing to do. And to find a hole to hide…