Dear Kashi (again)…

You blew it! They sent me the wrong reply letter, along with a $5 Kashi coupon. Coincidentally my own father also loves tractors, so I took that as a small consolation:


Dear Kashi

Dear Kashi,

In the eternal words of Aubrey “Drake” Graham, “I’m Upset.” You see, on the morning of Wednesday September 25th, 2019 I arose from slumber with a glint in my eye. I was feeling good. I was feeling ready to have a great day. On the agenda was a five mile run, the second run of the week, which happened to be week 14 of training for the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October. I planned to dominate that marathon, and this morning was just one of the few remaining training runs standing between me and my goal of completing it. After that, I planned to settle down at my desk to tackle a full plate of work.

But first, I had to eat something. I reached into the box of Kashi Mixed Berry Soft Baked Breakfast Bars that I had purchased from the grocery store the day before. I have probably consumed three of these delicious morsels of soft-baked goodness per day for the last two weeks. They are truly that good and, I admit, I had become addicted.

To my horror, what I drew from the box that morning was not the goodness that I expected. I found a proper wrapper that, on a typical day, I would peel back to reveal the sweet morsel inside. But alas, I found only a husk. An empty shell containing nothing but low-fat, low-calorie air. Approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, but 100% disappointment.

I have enclosed the wrapper in this envelope for your examination, in the hope that you can ensure proper quality control measures are taken. I can only hope that no others will face such disappointment in the dark of a pre-dawn morning like I did, but arise to enjoy the sweet Kashi goodness that you’re known for.

I still love you,

Paul Zakas


AT&T Fiber – 70,000x faster

I had AT&T Fiber internet (at gigabit speed) installed at my apartment back in February. Before talking about that, I have to provide a little history and context.

I’m a total infrastructure and internet nerd. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with learning about how the internet works, including the physical lines that hold it all together. Our first connection at home was, like many, a dial-up modem. I believe we started with a 14.4k connection to the local university, gradually increasing to 28.8k and 33.6k as the school upgraded their equipment…up until the vaunted 56k standard was released toward the end of the ’90s. I sometimes reminiscence about the good and bad old days of dial-up technology with YouTube clips such as this that highlight our archaic internet past. A past that was cutting edge just a couple decades ago.

My siblings and I tied up the phone line day and night with the modem, and disconnections and hiccups due to electrically noisy phone lines were common. It was rare to obtain a full 56k connection during the screeching “handshake” process between modem and host but, when it did happen, the speed increase was noticeable and seemed like a quantum leap at the time.

I remember watching as the local cable company (ironically “AT&T Broadband” at the time, post-acquisition of TCI and before becoming Comcast) strung fiber optic cable around the area and began offering cable internet service to a select, lucky few. But alas, our home was not within range of the new service for a few years. At that time, I was an avid online game player. However, my connection was far too slow for me to serve as the “host” of gameplay, meaning the individual who would serve as the hub for all players’ game data zooming back and forth across the nation. Those who had a cable or commercial-grade T1 connection (*gasp*) were revered as gods amongst men and would always be the go-to host. Internet speed typically refers to bandwidth, or how wide the pipe is. Successful online gaming relies on low latency, or delay in transit, for information traveling back and forth across the internet between gamer and host. Because of the data compression and overhead involved, dial-up modems are not suitable for applications like online gaming that require low latency.

Our family’s first broadband connection finally arrived in the early 2000s. It was DSL service provided by SBC (formerly Ameritech which, with some more irony on top, became AT&T in 2006). The service was incredible. While only rated at 1500k download and 128k upload, it screamed with speed as compared to dial-up.

As the years went on, cable prevailed over DSL as the dominant mode of broadband connectivity for US homes, and now even mobile (cellular) broadband makes up a good chunk of that share. Legacy copper networks were originally built for landline phone, then became a conduit for dial-up, then DSL, then advanced VDSL service (such as U-Verse). These networks have proven costly to maintain and upgrade to keep pace with modern data-hungry households and have even been abandoned by their owners, pending regulator approval in some cases.

Enter fiber optics. Fiber is currently the most efficient way to transmit large quantities of data. In the digital world of fiber, bits are represented by incomprehensibly fast pulses of light rather than analog electrical waves on a copper phone or cable line. While fiber optics have been at the core of the modern internet backbone since the late ’80s, Verizon was one of the first major US telecom companies to push “FTTH” or Fiber to the Home. This has expanded the range of services and bandwidth available to many households, and has provided a relatively future-proof upgrade path as compared to the rotting copper lines still strung across the nation. An existing fiber optic cable can support a nearly limitless data capacity simply by replacing the equipment at either end of the thin glass strand.

Once I had AT&T Fiber installed this year, I was pleased to see both upload and download speeds very close to their maximum 1000 megabits per second, or 1 gigabit per second (Gbps). I reflected back and realized how far we’ve come in such a short time – 1Gbps is just shy of 70,000x faster than the 14.4k dial-up modem I used back in the ’90s.


Replacing Thermal Paste on Retina MacBook Pro

I noticed my late-2013 model MacBook Pro had been running hotter than usual. The fan would seem to kick on when I wasn’t running anything too intensive on the machine, and the bottom of the case seemed overly warm as well.

I stumbled on this YouTube video from Luke Miani about “re-pasting” a MacBook Pro Retina 13″ – the process of replacing the thermal paste that bonds the processor to the heatsink. This paste is present in any machine and provides thermal conductivity to draw heat away from the CPU to keep it cool.

It turned out to be a pretty easy process once I had rubbing alcohol, replacement thermal paste, some Q-Tips, and the proper screwdrivers to open the case (T5, P5, and small Phillips).

After completing the repair, the laptop seems to run much cooler and the fan hasn’t kicked on at all yet during normal operation. In addition, I can feel a bit more heat coming out of the vent above the keyboard – this indicates that the heatsink is now doing its job more effectively. I definitely recommend this if you’re up to the task of cracking open your MBP.


2018 Flights

I used a website called to map out my travel during 2018. I’m pretty pleased with the geographic distribution, but there are some notable destination cities missing that I’ve frequented in the last couple years: Washington, DC; Raleigh; Boston; or anywhere international. Let’s see what 2019 brings.


Bad Blood

John Carreyrou’s novel Bad Blood chronicles the story of Theranos, the company started by Stanford-dropout and prodigy Elizabeth Holmes that reached a peak valuation of $10 billion. I started this book and couldn’t put it down.

It was pretty shocking to read about the level of deception and dishonesty perpetrated by the company and continually tolerated by partner companies, the Theranos legal team, and the company’s many high-profile investors. The book is definitely worth the read and will surely be a business school case study on due diligence and corporate responsibility for years to come.


Top YouTube Picks – September 2018

I’m long overdue for a blog post, so I thought I’d share some of my YouTube favorites from last month (in no particular order):

1) Rich Rebuilds – Rich has made a name for himself by completing the herculean task of cobbling together parts from two different salvaged Teslas (one flooded and one in a serious crash) to produce a fully-working Tesla Model S. The catch is that Tesla does not endorse such homegrown repairs and will not sell parts to Rich or others. Rich has become the de-facto leader of a community of Tesla owners who want to repair their own vehices. Motherboard did an excellent profile of Rich, linked here.

2) An Aerial Viewpoint – I’m not exactly sure how I stumbled across this channel but a YouTuber based in Fremont, Ohio has chronicled the removal of the Ballville Dam. He’s captured daily and weekly updates of the demolition process via drone footage.

3) Handeeman – This couple has built an off-grid compound in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Most interesting to me was their techniques to harvest large amounts of rainwater for bathing and cooking.

4) Last but not least, NBA Fans Making Half Court Shots For Money/Cars Compilation


Small Cell Bonanza

I find cellular infrastructure fascinating. As a technological society, we’ve made a tradeoff: we accept the presence of thousands of large, unsightly antennas perched on tall free-standing towers or on top of buildings in the midst of our communities in exchange for ubiquitous connectivity. To be fair, various communities (European cities and California come to mind) have come up with clever ways to ensure that this infrastructure is camouflaged through zoning restrictions, “tree towers” and the like. But, if you’re like me, then you can still find it.

Camouflaged “brick” antennas

The smartphone that you carry every day has a radio, just like the AM/FM radio in your car. It transmits and receives information from a transceiver that’s mounted somewhere high in the air. As cellular networks were being developed by Bell Labs in the 1960s and 1970s, the original designs used a single centralized antenna to serve a metropolitan area.

Depiction of central antenna covering the Chicago area from the AT&T Archives

Since then, cellular networks have been built on the principle of radio spectrum reuse. This now hilariously dated YouTube video from the AT&T Archives shows the difference in cellular network performance in Chicago before and after the implementation of AMPS, the first cellular network in the United States to use this technique.

Because the amount of radio spectrum allotted to cellular networks is limited, the principle of spectrum reuse is to utilize the same radio frequencies across many different antennas that are geographically dispersed. These distributed antennas transmit and receive at lower power levels than they would in the single, centralized antenna model shown above. By using this technique, the limited amount of radio spectrum can be used again and again across an area. That’s the general principle although there’s quite a bit of nuance involving radio frequency slicing and other techniques that prevent interference. Today, the leading wireless companies have deployed hundreds of thousands of cellular sites in this manner. These companies also work with the FCC to free up additional radio spectrum for use with their networks in order to raise capacity.

This now brings me to the topic at hand, the proliferation of small cells in cities around the US. While downtown Chicago has had a robust cellular network comprised of both macro-cells and small cells built out over many years, the buildout of small cells is now extending to other reaches of the city. The demand for high capacity data and voice capabilities makes sense in a more dense downtown area with commuters, large events, and more residents. However, it appears that the wireless carriers have reached a tipping point at which less dense areas of the city still require more capacity and have decided to initiate a wide-scale buildout of small cells. This is certainly a capital-intensive project but the carriers likely believe that next generation wireless or “5G” will require an even denser network of cells. I live in the Ravenswood area and have witnessed a huge amount of new small cells built out on light poles throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. I think this is a great thing for the city on the whole – we’ll have more reliable cellular signal and increased data capacity.

However, these small cells are just plain ugly! Compare the Verizon Wireless site on the left at Montrose and Ashland in Chicago to the site on the right in the Financial District in San Francisco.

Verizon small cell at Montrose and Ashland in Chicago

Small cell on light pole in Financial District in San Francisco










Both are situated on light poles but the San Francisco small cell is far less noticeable and appears to blend in with the pole itself. By contrast, the Verizon small cell has messy wiring and a bulky appearance.

Zoomed-in view: Verizon small cell at Montrose and Ashland in Chicago

To be fair, some of the other similar-looking Verizon small cells that I’ve observed around the city appear to have been installed with more care. I encourage Chicago city officials to enact stricter requirements on companies such as Crown Castle and Verizon Wireless to manage the appearance of small cells. It doesn’t have to be a tradeoff – we can have great coverage and keep our streets beautiful at the same time.


Why Everything We Think We Know about Health Care Is Wrong

The dramatic title of David Goldhill’s book Catastrophic Care caught my attention. I bought it, read it, and have now recommended it to a dozen or so people.

Goldhill describes the current state of the healthcare industry as an “island” unto itself. Due to many factors including regulation, history, and the legacy of government entitlement programs, the island operates quite differently than the “mainland.” The mainland, Goldhill states, houses all other industries such as banking, retail, travel and more. Because the financial incentives are vastly different on the island and the mainland, major differences in consumer satisfaction, quality, and pricing have appeared as a result. While industries on the mainland have been transformed by consumerism and digital technology, the island remains isolated, inefficient, and low-tech. Worst of all for the American economy, prices on the island are highly distorted.

The main drivers of this distortion are what Goldhill calls the “Surrogates.” The insurers, both private and government, are placed between you and me, the patients, and our healthcare providers. This gulf between the consumer and the provider causes mis-aligned incentives and financial distortion that doesn’t exist in other more consumer-driven industries. Driving the point home, Goldhill breaks down what a young employee at his company can expect to pay into the U.S. heathcare system over her lifetime and the findings are alarming. If you want to be a part of the healthcare debate, I’d highly recommend this book.


Review of Georgia Tech OMSCS

As of Fall 2016, I’m enrolled in the Online Master of Science – Computer Science, dubbed “OMSCS”, at Georgia Tech.

A few different personal goals led me to enroll in the program: 1) to obtain an advanced degree to aid in progressing towards more senior roles in my career; 2) to accomplish point #1 in a cost effective way; and 3) to keep my technical skills sharp.

I’m happy to say that this program has met and exceeded my expectations in addition to helping accomplish my three goals above. I can’t say enough good things about the program, but I’ll let the New York Times describe what makes this program special.

In spite of being a completely online program, the community aspect of the OMSCS is especially strong. I find that students are more engaged due to the availability and “always on” nature of the online class forum (called Piazza) than in my on-campus Computer Science classes during undergrad. With a large population of students across the globe participating in OMSCS, odds are that your question will be answered quickly by someone in some timezone at any given point in the day.

In addition, the course technology gives the OMSCS several advantages. For example, I can watch the Youtube-based lectures on my own schedule, versus a defined class time each week. Also, when a professor or TA holds office hours, it’s typically recorded and posted for all students to review. During my undergrad, if you had a conflict during the scheduled time for office hours, you were out of luck. Finally, for courses that involve closed-book tests (2 out of 4 of my courses thus far), advanced proctoring software allows you to take the test in the comfort of your own home. While this does involve the personal privacy sacrifices that come from being recorded via webcam and microphone, it does help to ensure the program remains high quality and worthy of Georgia Tech’s top ranking in the Computer Science field.

I’m currently in my second semester of the program and have taken two classes each during both semesters. With a full time job alongside the OMSCS, it’s a very demanding schedule. However, the program allows students to complete courses at their own pace, even one per semester, with a maximum of a one semester break in between.

All in all, it’s been a fun ride participating in what appears to be, by many accounts, the future of education.