Mattress Shopping

I have been using an air mattress for 2.5 years since I came to the US. It was a gift from two close friends who came here before me. It has done the job and been pretty convenient, especially when it came to moving. I have moved for a total of 3 times and had I had a queen-sized mattress, it would have been much trickier and more laborious.

However, I have been having trouble sleeping lately and back pain after sleep every night, something has to change. Since sleep is one of my priorities this year and moving forward, I can’t afford only 3-4 hours of sleep every night or feeling grumpy and listless the day after. So I decided to do something I hadn’t done before: mattress shopping.

Fortunately, I have a friend working as an assistant manager for a Mattress Firm store. Thanks to him, I learned quite a bit about mattresses:

  • There is quite a bit of science put into mattresses, pillows and bases. In short, a combination of an adjustable base, a reasonable pillow and mattress can help adjust the mattress to your sleeping body form, relieving the pressure, let’s say, from your back. The cooling effect can also aid your sleep
  • Unless you buy mattresses and other stuff out of the box (brand new), you are likely to have quite a considerable discount. Normally, folks can return mattresses in 120 days. When that happens, mattresses can be resold at a significant discount, even though materialistically and practically there should be no difference as the returned goods have to be checked and cleansed before any possible re-sell.
  • Build up your credit score. It enables a finance payment plan at zero interest. Some don’t have that option due to the lack of credit score or having a poor one

Personally, I rarely made any purchase of the size as I did today, but I figure if sleep is of high importance to me and I spend one third of my day on that mattress for some years to come, I’d better have something that I like and actually works. Same thing with almost everything in our life.

Tipping culture

This morning, a friend shared with me a passage from an online article, as follows:

A 2018 survey found people ages 18–27 are the most likely to shortchange the restaurant waitstaff. In fact, 10 percent admitted to routinely leaving no tip at all. Here’s a tip for all you millennials: Try leaving a few bucks on the table instead of posting pictures of your food to social media.

I found it baffling. The tipping culture in the US or Canada doesn’t really make sense to me. Wait staff enters a labor agreement with restaurant owners for a reason. They agree to the benefits and compensation offered by the owners. Without any involvement from customers. Customers have nothing to do with that. Yet, customers are forced to make up for the low wage. In some cases, tips are just expected, but in others, tips are automatically added to the bills. For the past two and a half years in the US, I could count on two hands the times when I felt satisfied with customer services at restaurants. Staff repeatedly and unnecessarily interferes in my conversation with the people I am with or rushes us out by proposing the bill when we are not done yet. Yet, tips are either expected or forced. How does that make sense?

As users, we are pissed that companies do something related to us without our consent, such as sharing our data. We are annoyed by others telling us what to do without consulting us beforehand. Then, why should the tipping “standard” be any different and acceptable? And as diners, why should we defend the owners paying low wages by arguing that it’s a standard?

I would love to pay a little bit more for the meals if it meant that wait staff got a higher wage. In that case, I wouldn’t have to tolerate the tips forced on me without my consent or the overly eager services by staff. Tipping is a standard, but it can be changed and should be. For the better.

Podcast: Russell Brand and Candace Owens

A friend recommended to me the interview below that featured Russell Brand and Candace Owens. Even though I still have 17 minutes to go, I think I have enough to say a couple of things about it.

Extremisms

From my perspectives, the two people in the clip came from two opposite extreme positions in a variety of topics, whether it was about the role of governments, the entitlement mindset, socialism, capitalism… The issue with coming from an extreme position is that it is too generalizing and often times it is right in a few scenarios. Take socialism. Candace cited multiple times Venezuela as the proof of socialism as a failed social system. On the other hand, Nordic countries have thrived in the past decades because of governments and societies that are more socialist than capitalist. Yet, such cases are conveniently ignored when critics of socialism take a stage and voice their criticisms.

Decentralization vs Centralization

Decentralization has become increasingly popular nowadays whether you talk about governments or cryptocurrency. Fans of decentralization don’t hesitate to criticize governments and centralization. Don’t get me wrong. A lot of governments fail at their jobs and deserve criticisms. Essentially, governments are run by human-beings and we are naturally flawed. We tend to succumb to excessive greed and thirst for power. That’s why we need checks and balance.

Nonetheless, centralization has been there for centuries. And it happened that way for a reason. If it were so bad, why wouldn’t something like centralization happen earlier? We may have the technology in what powers bitcoin or cryptocurrency to actually have a shot at scaled decentralization. When that will happen remains unclear, but I am amazed at the tendency to dismantle completely centralization by some crypto fans.

I believe it is a more efficient way between the two concepts at hand (centralization vs decentralization) to distribute resources and run societies. If there were no banks, how much less efficient would our societies be? If everybody had to keep his or her record and there were no trusted intermediary, how much more time and effort would be wasted to do what we normally do with government agencies and banks.

Additionally, many are concerned about growing influence of big corporations on our societies. Yet, without governments, who would be able to keep those corporations in check?

Conclusion

The interview itself is a refreshing one that features a civilized argument littered with disagreements. A rarity nowadays.

There are points from each side that I agree and disagree with. One of the things I have learned in the past two years is to have strong opinions and loosely held views. Or in layman’s terms, I avoid extreme positions. Particularly, regarding very complex issues such as socialism, centralization vs decentralization and macro-economics, just to name a few, I believe the extreme perspectives are even less accurate or helpful. You can’t tell me a government-led society won’t work when there is Singapore. You can’t tell me socialism won’t work when there are Nordic countries.

Each country is very different. One concept that works for one country is not guaranteed to work in others. Using one particular failure/success to dismiss/over-hype that concept is, in my opinion, not right. What is failing is the execution. Not the concepts. What matters is reality. Whatever works works, regardless of what it is called.

Holiday shoppings, investments and personal finance

I felt pleased with myself that I didn’t buy anything from the Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday madness. Not that I didn’t have any reasons to. My phone is 5 years old with multiple cracks on the screen protection. My Mac is 6 years old with some cracks on itself as well. And who knows what kind of needs could have hit me the seconds I browsed those websites? We all want another pair of shoes. 

Some of the people I talked to didn’t buy either. I think that we live in the time of surplus supply. Manufacturers keep producing in quantity and variety. To shorten the sales cycle, they cut the time to market and also the price to get a bit deeper into our wallet. Hence, it seems that discounts are all year around. Personally, I wasn’t impressed by any discounts during the very last holidays. The discounts seemed like any that I had seen before. Plus, I resisted the temptation to buy things that I didn’t actually need. It was not easy! 

Imagine the money you saved from not spending on things you didn’t need during the holiday. Instead, you invested the money in the stock market. For the past month, a lot of tech stocks plummeted. Apple lost almost $200 billion in market valuation, for instance. Some turned around and recovered pretty fast such as VMWare. As a result, the investment could have netted you a reasonably good amount of money. If you invest in the stocks and hold them for a long time, the compound interest can lead to an even bigger return, provided that, of course, the stocks perform well. 

I stated before that personal finance should be mandatory at schools. The earlier kids can learn about it, the better. Look at this tweet below and you’ll know what I am talking about. Even if you are suspicious of the figures, do your own research on poverty in the US or student loans. 

Thanksgiving

In Vietnam, we don’t have Thanksgiving and it’s not a big deal in Europe either. So it’s a new concept to me. Nonetheless, I feel very thankful to America and what I have had for the past 2.5 years. 

I came here for more education, especially on the technology side, and a chance at a better life and career. In about 4 weeks, this Vietnamese will graduate with no student loan whatsoever. It’s all thanks to the school and the opportunity it’s given me. 

My first internship in the US was at an e-commerce website based in Omaha. It was an SEO position. Though I knew conceptually what SEO was, I had had little experience in both SEO and e-commerce. Yet, they took a chance on me and while it lasted for 10-11 weeks only, I picked up something along the way that proved to be useful later on. 

My next internship that has been going on for 1.5 years is at a technology company. The position advertisement was labeled Graphic Design, but the job description sounded an awful lot like one of a marketer. I applied and got an interview. It went well and I got the job. My boss later told me that she and the VP of Sales and Marketing agreed that even though I wasn’t exactly what they were looking for (someone with more design skill) and they didn’t know yet how I could fit in, they determined that I would come on board. 

Plus, I have met some great folks at school and forged friendships that would last for years to come. 

So I am pretty thankful for everything America. 

Public Transit

Landing in Austin, I immediately went to Uber and Lyft apps to look for a ride to Austin Downtown. Each came back with an estimate of $20 for a ride. I thought, well, it is what it is. In my defense, it is kinda a trained reaction after living for a while in America, where public transportation can be disappointing in some cases. Anyway, I decided to give it a try and ask the Information Desk about buses to Austin downtown. It turned out that buses run every 15 mins, even on Saturdays and most Sundays from and to the airport. The charge? $1.25/person/ride. It took me only 25 mins to reach Austin downtown, not much different from the estimated time of an Uber/Lyft ride. But I saved $19.

Imagine how much money & time we could collectively save from using more public transportation and less personal vehicles. No more scrambling to find a parking slot, no more parking fees in your building, no more car insurance and safer transportation. A well-designed public transportation network will be a great investment of tax payers’ money and a spoon for low-income folks who should not be forced to buy a car for daily commute.

In Omaha, one of two biggest cities in Nebraska, if not the biggest, there are more bus routes from downtown than other parts of the city and on the weekdays. If you live reasonably far out, no matter the direction, from the city center, there is no bus at all. On the weekends, there is only one bus every half an hour or every hour. To popular places such as Social Security Administration or DMV, there is usually one bus every half an hour, even on the weekdays, and it usually involves transiting from another bus. Trust me, it’s hugely frustrating and unnecessarily time-consuming. On top of that, drivers in Omaha are terrible. I don’t know about drivers in other cities, but a busted car front is not an unusual sight there. If you are not an experienced driver, it can be dangerous and daunting. Oh and it is even worse in the winter. My boss told me on Friday, the first day of winter, that she had to turn around and come home after 2 miles because there were a lot of accidents and the roads were too slippery.

P/S: After telling me about the bus, the lady at Austin Airport’s Information Desk promptly gave me a quarter for my bus ride. Talk about first impression from a new city!

 

 

Gratitude

If you get to know me these days, I have a tendency to go on and on about how much I am struggling between two Capstones and a job. I am not good at programming, but I have been hustling to write line after line of Javascript, Python and HTML. Hours and hours of being glued to my desk and sometimes the code didn’t work. Imagine that monumental amount of frustration.

This weekend, I am on a quick getaway trip to see a good friend from Belgium, who is in the US right now for business. So while on the planes and during layover, I have some time away from all the coding, Slack messages and fear that the code won’t work. Time to reflect.

Before this semester, I kept saying to whoever cared enough to ask: I can’t wait to graduate. 5 weeks from graduation, I am; however, often overwhelmed by the feeling of uncertainty. What will I do when I am no longer a student? Being an immigrant in the US these days is not easy or enjoyable. Finding a job and getting the paperwork to work is challenging, requiring quite a bit of luck. Even though I have a clean track record (I don’t even have speeding/parking ticket) and my employer indicates an intention of keeping me permanently, my fate rests entirely upon some stranger in the Department of Homeland Security. There is nothing else I can do, but to wait and pray.

There are things that I don’t like about the US. It’s normal. I don’t think there is anywhere I wholeheartedly like. But I have gained quite a lot here. I wouldn’t have learned about coding had I still stayed in Vietnam. Instead, I am able to write some code now to the point that I enjoy doing it. Who knows? Maybe it will lead me to a great opportunity one day.

My job teaches me a great deal about enterprise IT infrastructure. Without coming to the US, how could I have known about cloud computing, storage, next-generation firewalls, etc…? (sounds smart heh?). Trust me, I am a newbie with a mountain of knowledge to learn. It’s like Himalaya. It keeps rising higher and higher.

More importantly, I have met some incredible people while in the US. Some will still be my friends a few years from now. Three days ago, a friend from Germany that I met while in Omaha, texted me out of the blue on Whatsapp, saying: “Minh, how is it going? Closer to graduation? Just want to let you know that if you want to find a job in Germany, don’t hesitate to ask”. I made my day and days after that.

What I am trying to say is that I am grateful for what I have got during the last two and a half years. Has it all been perfect? No. But I am grateful for it.

I spent an illegal and unacceptable amount of time on debating with myself: if I could do it all over again, would I still come here? Trust me, such a debate could drain you. After all, I left behind everything I had up to August 2016 to come to the US. No friends, no family, all the professional credibility and network in Vietnam that would mean nothing , and a personal relationship that would be broken at some point.

But whenever I am not in a bad mood, at a low point, drunk or bone-tired because of work and school, I feel grateful to the US and all the people that I have come across. Really. Would I still do it? The answer is yes.

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj & the man himself

I was told to watch Hasan Minhaj’s new show on Netflix called Patriot Act. If you don’t have a Netflix account, rest easy. The first three episodes are available on YouTube.

I like the show and Hasan. For some reasons, I am not a big fan of most of the late night comedy shows any more, except Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Celebrity interviews or games or only “anti-Trump” rhetoric that sometimes comes with lame jokes don’t engage me. I prefer learning something new from a show or a funny take on the current issues. So far, John Oliver and now Hasan deliver that in my opinion. While John Oliver has a knack for choosing overlooked issues in our society, Hasan is a masterful story-teller. He just sucks you in the story he is telling whether it is a story on his family after 9/11, his take on that John McCain debate during 2008 presidential debate, or his being bullied in high school.

I was in the gym today, listening to his commencement speech at high school. He told the story of him being bullied, of being rejected from his dream of playing basketball in high school and of how that forced him to comedy. I recommend listening to his speech. In the end, he got real.

“It doesn’t always get better. The world doesn’t care one bit about your dream. But if you keep working, you’ll find something that you are meant to do. You’ll eventually find where you are supposed to be. If you can’t get into the front door. Go through the side. If you can’t go through the side, go through the backyard. If you can’t go through the backyard, go through the window. No matter what. Never stop fighting through the pick”.

Or something along that line. He has other great interviews on YouTube, but I’ll let you discover them.

 

Midterms and why you should vote

I do discuss politics, but with my friends only or those who are open-minded enough to do it without engaging in a shouting match or escalating it to another level. I don’t want to talk politics on this blog because it’s a black hole. But today I want to.

Midterm ads

As the midterms are coming around the corner, I have seen more ads on YouTube. Mostly attack ads that are sponsored by  a candidate to attack his or her opponents. That’s pitiful. A lot of money is spent on attacking opponents. Instead, such money should have been spent in a more meaningful way.

Politics in America is about the extreme. It’s either one end of the stick or the other end. Nothing in between. It’s common to advance by attacking others. Meanwhile, plenty of important issues in our life go unnoticed or misunderstood by the public. Issues such as foreign policies, trade or healthcare are highly complicated and most of us don’t quite get them. Even if we understand, the compartmentalization and secrecy born out of how governments work in general, not just the US government, make information inaccessible and misunderstanding more palpable.

Call me an idealist, but if public servants as these politicians all claim to be want to serve the public, wouldn’t it benefit the public if they spent their money on educating their constituents on important issues, instead of attacking their opponents? I am not talking about last-minute vids when campaigns start. I am talking about a year-long constant effort on trying to help constituents understand issues more. It’s likely that they wouldn’t understand some highly highly complex issues anyway, but at least they would understand more what is going on. And that is the essence of serving the public.

In business, the surest way to attract users/customers is to be helpful/useful to them. It should be the same here. Politicians wouldn’t need to be helpful for the public. They could do it for themselves. By making themselves a reliable source of information and knowledge on what matters in constituents’ lives, I believe politicians would find it easier to earn trust. Even if things go wrong, they could always say: hey, I have been telling you that we have to compromise in politics and things are not straightforward 9 out of 10 cases. That’s the truth, provided that these politicians are forthcoming and transparent.

Sadly, it is not the case.

The importance of voting

I have talked to a few folks in Nebraska. Some didn’t vote in 2016 because they didn’t like either candidate. Low turnout is not really that uncommon here. But I’d like to talk about what happens on tonight’s episode of Madam Secretary, a show I talked about in the past.

On this episode, the Secretary had to find a way to work with a dictator in Philippines to retrieve the bodies of dead American soldiers who died in, probably, WW2 (I don’t remember the show mentioning it clearly but it was 1945, so WW2 was my guess). The dictator refused to endorse the request to retrieve the bodies, unless America gave him money that would be used to buy weapons and suppress his citizens in the future. Some compromise would be required here.

Meanwhile, her daughter worked for a candidate who pledged to campaign on student loans as one of his principles. But he left it out of his agenda. Her daughter quit the campaign because of that. Listen to this clip to see how the Secretary taught her daughter on the importance of voting.

I was about to go to bed and like I said, politics is not what I like to talk about on this blog. Nonetheless, I figured I had to do this because it mattered. If you read this and are eligible to vote in a few days, do vote. Like the Secretary said, many died for you to be able to vote. And why wouldn’t you? It will affect your life for years to come. It will also affect the world for years to come. If your representative is a decisive vote on a bill that will affect other countries, imagine that.

Do a quick research on your representatives, senators, attorney generals or governors. Any position that is on the ballot. Chances are you won’t agree with everything a candidate has to offer, but it’s life and it may be because some compromise had been made and you don’t know about it. Nonetheless, do vote.

Ecstasy after toiling

My background is mostly in marketing. It can get very subjective. What looks beautiful to you may not to others. Some copy that may sound appealing to you may not to others.

Coding is different. Either your code works the way you want it to or it has bugs or malfunctions. Unfortunately, coding is hard for me. Without a technical background, anything related to programming such as installing software, setting environment, missing a comma or colon and getting the code to work is hard for me. But at the same time, whenever I get some code to work as intended, I am overwhelmed by a burst of joy. A heavy dose of pride and fulfillment. Ecstasy after toiling.

In 2017, a few friends and I participated in an M&A case competition in Nebraska. We had to work long hours every day for 2 weeks for each round (there were two rounds). On top of our daily life and schoolwork. Only after we advanced in the 1st round were we allowed to go the other round. I remember in the first round, we put a lot of effort in our case and presentation. Every comma, dot, word or even the order of annotations were looked over. We finished our proposal at 2:30am, 6 hours away from the deadline after a marathon weekend. After we pressed the “send” button, the feelings were indescribably awesome. Full of pride and fulfillment. Whether we would win didn’t matter at the time at all. Ecstasy after toiling.

In the second round, we dropped the ball. We didn’t have the same level of effort and intensity. The day we submitted the 2nd proposal, nobody felt good. We actually fought between us because I didn’t feel the others put in enough effort.

We are often told to be patient. Things worth having take time. Or something along that line they usually say. The potential ecstasy at the end of the tunnel may give each of us the motivation to try harder and again the next day. But for sure the road is hard.