The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 19: Work hard, play hard #COVID19

I think it’s pretty safe to say that many of us are suffering from pandemic fatigue. I know I sure am. I’ve written a few times about my job search frustrations, and quite frankly, it’s wearing on me. I’ve mentioned in my job hunt presentation (which I’ll be presenting on October 3 </ShamelessPlug>) that looking for a job is, itself, a full-time job. It easily occupies most, if not all, of your working day. And it can be very wearing… not to mention stressful — and frustrating.

With that, I’ve been turning to my activities to keep myself sane. Now that New York State has allowed gyms to reopen, I’ve been going to CrossFit classes (whenever my schedule and my aching back/shoulder allows it). I’ve also tried to stay on top of professional endeavors; last Monday, I attended a very good user group meeting in which Mindy Curnutt talked about spatial data. (I had no idea that you could do stuff like that in SQL Server!) And I’m looking into other ways to keep on top of my professional skill sets; I’ll be speaking at (and attending) Memphis virtual SQL Saturday two weeks from this Saturday, as well as virtual PASS Summit in November.

However, staying on top of skill sets isn’t just limited to professional endeavors; they apply to my extracurricular activities as well. I mentioned earlier that I’d gotten back into songwriting and music recording again. While this is primarily a hobby and not something I do professionally, it is, nevertheless, a hobby that I take very seriously — to the point that I treat it as though I do it professionally. I’ve invested time and money into equipment and software. I’ve attended songwriting workshops in the past, and I’ve even spent time in professional recording studios. And I’ve started looking around on Google for courses in audio engineering and multitrack recording; while I’ve learned a lot working on this on my own, I realize that there’s also a lot I don’t know, and while I’ve gotten better at my craft, I also recognize that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

If you have an activity that you’re passionate about doing, I think it’s just as important to work just as hard at it as you would your profession. You’ll sharpen your skill sets in a number of ways — even your extracurricular activities can often benefit you professionally. And you’ll also gain a greater deal of satisfaction and appreciation for your art — whatever art that may be.

The appeal of working for a virtual company

This morning, I had an online interview for a virtual company. For personal and privacy reasons, I won’t talk about the company or the interview (other than it went well), but one takeaway from it was that it seems very much like an organization where I’d like to work.

If I do land this job, it would not be my first experience working for a virtual company. I previously worked for a place that had no brick-and-mortar office location. I left that job after a few months for reasons that were unrelated to the virtual office structure.

I will say that during my time at that company, I saw — and still see — the appeal of working for a virtual company, something that is much more relevant now, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For starters, there’s the commute. When I was working my previous job (and before the pandemic), I’d get in my car and drive fifteen minutes to get to my office. In a work-at-home situation, my commute is the distance from my bedroom downstairs to my home office — which generally takes all of thirty seconds. Additionally, that’s less wear and tear on my car, and less gas that I need to use. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to put gas in my car during the pandemic.

The job for which I interviewed is a full-time position that requires me to put in forty hours a week — but they are a flexible forty hours. This position would give me the ability to adapt my schedule around my activities.

While I like the camaraderie that comes with working with people in a brick-and-mortar office, one of the great appeals for this position is that I would be working with a globally distributed and geopolitically-diverse team located in several different countries. As someone who enjoys watching shows on The Travel Channel and Food Network, the idea of working with such a diverse group of people is especially appealing. I enjoy experiencing different cultures, and the prospect of working with different people from around the world appeals to me. While I will likely not meet these people in-person, and while they are not a substitute for physical presence, current technologies such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams do make up for some of the lack of contact.

And although I never had the opportunity to physically shake hands with my coworkers from my previous virtual position, I did make a number of friends with a number of them. Several of them are still connected with me on LinkedIn and Facebook to this day.

Additionally, while I would be working for a new company, I would already go into it being familiar and comfortable with my surroundings. There is no concern about getting comfortable with a new desk, learning the layout of your office, knowing where the bathroom is located, or trying to figure out where to go for lunch.

To be sure, remote work is not perfect, and there are several things I do miss about working in an office — for example, the ability to go out to lunch with my coworkers or go out for a drink with them after work. However, despite the fact that this company has no brick-and-mortar location, I’m finding that there are many aspects of this potential employer that appeal to me. I’m genuinely excited about the prospect of working for this company.

During this period of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to work from home is essential. Some people argue that virtual companies are the wave of the future. Regardless of how you feel about the work-at-home environment, there is something to be said about working for a virtual company.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 18: Revisiting MIDI sequencing and songwriting #COVID19

Years ago — another lifetime ago, it seems — I was a songwriter. I actually had several demos that I put together (you can listen to them here), and I had a few friends who helped me put them together (mostly because I don’t play the guitar, and I can’t sing worth a damn). My idea was to put together songs in my own living room under the guise of a “band,” similar to what Tom Scholz does with Boston. I attended songwriting workshops, and I even entered a songwriting contest in which I received Honorable Mention recognition.

Had I pursued this endeavor more vigorously, it’s entirely possible that I could be making a living off my music, rather than pursuing a career in IT and writing professional development ‘blogs. Alas, as John Lennon once famously sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” My “band” lost touch with each other and went on with their own separate lives (one of them actually died tragically). I went to grad school, got my Masters degree (in a field unrelated to music), got married, and went down the technical career path on which I continue to this day.

Although it’s not the main reason why I stopped making my own music, one of my big deterrents was the tools at my disposal. I had a MIDI sequencing setup that utilized a Kurzweil Ensemble Grande piano (the original model), a Kawai G-Mega sound module, and a Macintosh SE running Trax. It was a setup that worked very well. It was very easy to use, and it did what I wanted it to do.

Unfortunately, it also started showing its age (when was the last time you saw a Mac SE?). I still have the Kurzweil piano and the Kawai module, and even though they’re about thirty years old (maybe more), they still work. The computer, however, was another story. The screen built into it was starting to fade, and it was clear that it would eventually get to the point where it would become unusable. So I pulled as many MIDI files off of it as I could and transferred them to my PC.

I also managed to get a copy of Trax for the PC, but as I upgraded my PCs, my version of Trax became incompatible. I looked into getting another MIDI sequencer — and that’s where my problems began.

I had purchased a copy of ACID Music Studio (at the time that I bought it, it was a Sony product). I liked (and still like) using it for mixing and mastering, but I still preferred using Trax for creating my MIDI sequencing data and importing them into ACID.

When I tried recording MIDI data, I kept running into problems, neither of which I was able to resolve. Either…

  1. my computer kept blue-screening, or…
  2. I kept having massive (and very nasty) latency issues.

Unfortunately, these issues (especially the latency) became so bad that it discouraged me from working on them. I set them aside and never got back to them…

…that is, until last night. Last November, I bought a new laptop, much better than any machine I’ve previously owned (although I did need to install a new hard drive in it). Additionally, I bought a new MIDI interface a few months ago; it turned out that my old one was not compatible and no longer supported. And I upgraded my copy of ACID a while back; even though I had originally bought it 20+ years ago, when I went to the vendor‘s web site, I was happy to see that my software license was still valid, which allowed me to download an updated version.

So now, my setup consists of the following.

  • HP Pavilion x360 laptop running ACID Music Studio v.10.0 on Windows 10 Home
  • Roland UM-ONE MIDI interface
  • My thirty-year-old Kurzweil Ensemble Grande piano (hey, don’t knock it — it still works, and I love that I can use a full-sized piano as a MIDI controller)
  • My nearly-as-old Kawai G-Mega MIDI sound module

I spent last night (I was up until 1:30 am!) experimenting with my setup. The computer remained stable, and I did not experience any serious latency issues. After being away from it for several years, it looks like I have a working MIDI setup once again!

However, the setup wasn’t without its problems.

  • As I mentioned above, I created my MIDI sequences in Trax and imported them into ACID. I’d forgotten about this when I tried creating and editing MIDI sequences directly in ACID, and couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t able to (easily) do what I used to be able to do. It turned out that I was accustomed to creating them in Trax. I should be able to do them in ACID, but I’m finding out that there is a steep learning curve involved. I might look into getting another easy-to-use sequencer; the thought of investing in a new version of Trax has crossed my mind.
  • One thing missing from my setup: a good audio interface. As anyone involved in recording can tell you, you don’t want use the default input to record audio directly into your computer; it makes for poor sound quality. I have a Lexicon Alpha which has served me well, but while tinkering with it last night, it suddenly stopped working. I reinstalled the driver and rebooted the computer (several times), all to no avail. The website says the Alpha has been discontinued, and although the driver is supposedly Windows 10-compatible, my machine would not recognize it after several restart attempts. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I may need to invest in a new one. If anyone has any suggestions for a good audio interface, feel free to comment below.
  • I still can’t sing or play the guitar to save my life! Anyone who can do either (or both) want to help me make demos?

It’s been several years since I worked on my own original music. Now that I have a working (albeit clunky) MIDI sequencing setup once again, I can return to a hobby that I once loved but abandoned years ago.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 18: Exploring your backyard (and places to visit near Albany, NY) #COVID19

(Photo credit: U.S. Grant Cottage State Historic Site)

This morning, I saw a Facebook post from a friend of mine who visited the Ulysses S. Grant cottage. He posted about its historic significance, and included a number of photos that he took around the site. It was a neat post, and it made me want to visit the site.

I looked into it to see where it was located, and was surprised to find that it was just north of Saratoga — less than an hour’s drive from my home!

It got me thinking about traveling to places that are nearby. It’s been often said that some of the best places to explore are right in your own backyard. It’s especially important now with the pandemic restricting travel. My wife has complained to me about the need to de-stress and take some time off, and I’ve suggested doing a weekend (even just one night) up in Lake George — not too far from my home (it’s easily do-able as a day trip), but just far enough away to warrant a weekend.

It also got me thinking about what places are worth the trip for those who aren’t from around here. Granted, the Albany metropolitan area doesn’t exactly pop up on most people’s radars when they’re considering vacation spots or places to visit. Even I’ve been occasionally at a loss for words whenever friends ask me about things around my home that are worth the trip. But when I stop to think about it (as I’m doing right now for this article), there are a number of places around here to visit.

So, here’s a not-so-comprehensive list (really, just things that come to me) that are within an easy day trip from my home in the Albany area (including a few places that I’ve already mentioned above).

(There are probably a lot more things that I’m missing, but that would make for a very long list. This isn’t a travel ‘blog, and I am not a travel writer.)

What are some good places to visit in your own backyard? (Feel free to comment below.) If you’re itching to check some places out, go out and do so.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 17: Check out virtual user group meetings #COVID19

With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting just about every aspect of our lives, we’ve had to adapt. A couple of weeks ago, we hosted SQL Saturday virtually. Likewise, a number of user groups, including our local SQL group, have resorted to holding virtual group meetings.

I wrote a while back that there are benefits to being involved with non-local user groups. That was before the pandemic. Now that many user groups are holding virtual meetings, geography is no longer a factor. You can attend nearly any user group meeting that is held virtually.

During the pandemic, I’ve received numerous notifications for virtual SQL user group meetings. Most of them arrive in my inbox via Meetup, and I’ve gotten them through my involvement with these groups or through their local SQL Saturdays. Here are some of the (mostly SQL, unless noted) user group Meetups emails that I receive (note: the Philadelphia groups use Eventbrite, not Meetup, and Rochester uses the tools supplied by PASS).

If you’re interested in doing some networking and learning new things, check out a user group. Now that many of them are holding virtual meetings, your location is no longer a factor.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 16: Getting a kick in the butt when I need it #COVID19

It’s been a while since I wrote a COVID-19 update, so I think this is Part 16.

This morning, I had a text conversation with a friend who gave me a badly-needed kick in the butt.

A little background information is in order here.

I’m not going to lie. I have been very discouraged by the job hunt (going on nearly three months, now). It seems like every place that I’ve applied has rejected me — to the point that my job hunt morale has taken a big hit. I can count on one hand the number of interviews I’ve had, out of the many dozens (and counting) of applications I’ve submitted. My job situation has been a major source of stress, along with a few other things (that I won’t get into here) that have added to it. The only thing that has kept me going is my LLC. I have a couple of clients that have been keeping me busy, but it’s still not yet enough for me to pay my mortgage. I address acknowledging your own emotions at the beginning of my job hunt presentation, and I, myself, fell into the same trap.

And, of course, I have not been helped by the COVID-19 situation.

My friend — a former co-worker at my previous job — told me, in a nutshell, to get off my duff and get busy again. He reminded me of a few things that, as it turned out, I badly needed to hear: I need to learn new things, I need to keep learning and stay on top of things, I need to keep plugging away, I need to keep working, and possibly the most important reminder: I have the smarts, the talent, and the wherewithal to do great things. Don’t throw that away.

Our conversation reminded me of the many good things I do have going on, and either want to continue doing, or want to restart. My LLC has been a source of professional and educational experience during a time when I badly need it. I’d started a few endeavors during this COVID-19 crisis, including starting my new business, starting a Couch-to-5K program (which has been on-hold lately because of health issues — not COVID-19 related) and teaching myself French. There are some other things that I either started a while ago or in which I’ve been active, but have also fallen by the wayside: teaching myself BI, teaching myself GitHub, and getting back into my music, including my songwriting endeavors. I also want to make sure that I brush up on my development skills that have become rusty over time.

Some people are able to stay strong throughout this crisis (which seems to have no end in sight), while others need an occasional boost. No matter who you are, it’s easy to lose sight of things, and it’s important to have support to keep that going — which includes friends who’ll give you the occasional kick in the butt when you need it. One of the casualties of the COVID-19 crisis is that we’ve been so isolated that we don’t see our friends (other than immediate family within your household) as much as we’d like or need. Your friends are your support system, and good friends will get you back on track when you need it.

So, to my friend with whom I spoke this morning, if you’re reading this, thank you again for that kick in the butt. You likely helped me more than you know.

Upcoming speaking engagements (as of 6/18/2020)

It’s been a while since I posted an update about upcoming speaking engagements. It doesn’t help, of course, that COVID-19 has shut down many of the events where I had applied. I was supposed to speak at SQL Saturday in Chicago, and I had applied to speak at a local code camp, but both events were wiped out by COVID-19.

As of right now, my only confirmed event is Albany SQL Saturday on July 25, which will be a virtual event this year. I will be doing my presentation on networking. Click the link above to register for the event. I love going to SQL Saturday. It’s always a good time, even if you’re not a database geek!

I’ve also applied to speak at this year’s PASS Summit, which, likewise, will also be a virtual event this year. As of right now, I am not confirmed to speak, so I have no idea whether or not I’ll be speaking at this event.

Generally, I apply to speak mainly at events within relatively easy driving distance of my home near Albany, NY (PASS Summit and Chicago SQL Saturday being exceptions), but now that COVID-19 has forced many events to go virtual, I’ll likely apply for more virtual events anywhere.

Check out my presentation schedule (including upcoming dates) for my updated list of speaking engagements. Hopefully, I’ll see you at an event sometime soon.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 15: The need to let off steam #COVID19

Think about a boiler or a steam engine. As steam builds up within, pressure increases. Eventually, pressure builds beyond the boiler’s capacity to contain it, and the boiler explodes, often with devastating results.

While we as humans don’t physically share the same traits as a boiler, psychologically and metaphorically, the principle is the same. Often, things in life causes stress and builds pressure. Eventually, the stress builds to the point where we just explode. The outlet can happen in numerous ways; at best, we cry on someone’s shoulder, and at worst, we hurt someone else in the aftermath.

I reached that point yesterday during my job hunt. My wife could see that I was visibly upset, and it got to the point that I vented on my Facebook account. I usually watch my language whenever I post to social media, but you know I’m upset when I start dropping F-bombs without any filters, and I did exactly that on my Facebook account yesterday. It’s not the first time I’ve done that, and it won’t be the last. There’s a reason why I keep my Facebook account separate from my ‘blog and from my other public accounts. My Facebook is strictly friends-only, and it’s the equivalent of keeping my private life separate from my public persona.

The point is that we all occasionally need to let off steam before the pressure causes any damage. If something is bothering you, don’t keep it bottled up. Find some kind of outlet to release the pressure. Talk to your significant other or a friend. Go out and do something to get your mind off of whatever is bothering you. Write in a journal (or a ‘blog). Find an activity to safely release your anger and your extra energy. Do something creative. Exercise. Go for a walk. Go out to your backyard and yell at the top of your lungs. Do something — anything — to release that pressure, and make sure that you don’t hurt anyone in the process.

One of my favorite — and funniest — examples of letting off steam is a scene in the movie Analyze This, where a psychiatrist (played by Billy Crystal) tells his mob boss patient (Robert DeNiro) to hit a pillow. What he does is amusing! (If you have sensitive ears, be forewarned that F-bombs are dropped in the YouTube clip link that I provided.)

In a couple of weeks (May 28), I will be giving my online presentation about the job hunt and being unemployed. (If you’re interested in attending, use this link to register for the webinar.) One of the first — and biggest — things I address is dealing with your emotions after you lose your job. You’re going to feel something after your employment ends, and before you can do anything else, you need to deal with those emotions before you can proceed with your job hunt. Once you do, you’ll be able to proceed with a clear head.

These days, especially during our confinement through the COVID-19 crisis, our stress levels are heightened. Make sure you find a way to relieve that stress before it reaches a boiling point. Don’t become an exploding boiler. People can get hurt.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 14: Learning a new language #COVID19

When the COVID-19 crisis is over, if someone asks you, “what did you do to improve yourself during the crisis,” how will you answer? For me, personally, I’ll be able to say that I started my own business, I started running more, and I did an online presentation. (Hopefully, I’ll also be able to include that I got a new job, I upgraded my laptop, and I got back into music recording again!)

One thing that has been on my bucket list for some time is to learn a new language. I took three years of German in high school (and a semester in college), but I haven’t practiced it in quite some time, and I’ve very rarely had chances to use it. I haven’t had many practical uses for it. On the other hand, when my wife and I went on vacation up to Québec a few years ago, I found myself wishing that I could speak French. (Besides, France is on my bucket list of places I’d like to visit.) Likewise, I like to frequent Koreatown whenever I’m in New York City, and as a Korean-American, I figured that it would make sense for me to learn my own ancestral language. My grandmother tried to teach me while I was growing up, but she spoke almost no English, and it was hard for me to pick up. As I often tell people, my knowledge of Korean comes from what little my grandmother tried to teach me, and from M*A*S*H reruns.

I’ve heard good things about Babbel, so I decided to look there. Unfortunately, Korean is not one of the language options that they offer. However, they do offer a number of others. I figure maybe French and Spanish might be a couple of good ones, and I can brush up on my German. I had also heard about language programs costing hundreds of dollars — another reason why I’d never pursued this earlier — but when I looked at Babbel, I saw that they had monthly subscriptions for reasonable prices.

So, I’m looking into it. Maybe by the time the COVID-19 crisis is over, when someone asks me what I did, I’ll be able to say that “J’ai appris une nouvelle langue.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 13: Running for my life #COVID19

I’ll admit that the COVID-19 crisis has had me fall into some bad habits. This morning, I decided to address one of them.

Since gyms have been shut down due to the crisis, I have fallen off the wagon when it comes to my CrossFit workouts. I’ve been doing a lot of sitting on my duff. Since I work in IT, it’s the nature of the beast and a job hazard. I woke up this morning to a sunny morning (for once — we’ve had a lot of rain, sunny days have been few and far between, and it’s directly affected my mood, not to mention my motivation), and decided to do something.

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It may not be much — I just went around the block a few times — but you gotta start somewhere.

I went to the Couch to 5K website and did a little reading. I’ve toyed with the idea before, but never pulled the trigger on it. For whatever reason, this morning was different. I downloaded the C25K app to my phone, put on my shirt, shorts, and CrossFit shoes, and followed the instructions for Day 1 as I went around the block several times. Day 1 is essentially a 20 minute AMRAP (or maybe EMOM might be more accurate — I’m not sure) that alternates between 90 seconds of walking and 60 seconds of jogging (not including a 5 minute warm-up and cool-down walk at the beginning and end). It sounds pretty easy, but I was still winded by the time I was finished.

Will I keep this up for eight weeks? We’ll see. Right now, the jury’s out. For all I know, I might wake up tomorrow morning and decide that I want to stay in bed. But hey, we all need to start somewhere. Maybe at the very least, when the COVID-19 crisis is over and I’m allowed to go back to my gym, I won’t cringe when the coaches tell me that the WOD is a 5K run.