2016 Looking back

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I called 2016 as "Year of intentional focus". Looking back , it was 365 days filled with lot of action , some inaction as well. I doubled my focus on some of my passions but also got distracted from a few areas I did want to put some focus.  On personal front, my little angel is more than a year old now , Sakthi & I complete two years of marriage. At work, I survived more than a year in tech product management. Similar to what I have written in the past, I will review my goals and progress on my various passionate areas.

Technology :
For 2016, my goals outside of work are : (1) Swift programming (2) Machine learning basics.
  • I attended a basic course on "Swift programming" and reviewed my programming basics in February.
  • Dirtied my hands along with few other developers in understanding the bot framework and we managed to build a basic bot called AskHR Bot and demoed in our Hackathon
  • I did sign up for couple of MOOCs on Data analysis and machine learning and never spent dedicated time to complete them. I wanted to read few technical books , but ended up learning only one on web designing.
  • I did plan to build a basic mobile app and also write a classifier or spam filter to deepen my learning  - but never managed to spend time in this area
For 2017 my 1 top goals for this area : Take up a coding project online and work on that regularly over the year

Plan : I would spend time dirtying my hand with coding and spend time writing code at least one hour a week.

Health & Fitness
2016, my top 3 goals for fitness are  : (1) Get body fat level to below 20% (2) One day finish at STP  (3) Swimming : 300 miles , cycling 1000 miles
2017 , my top 3 goals for fitness are  : (1) Get body fat level to below 20% (2) (Completing Ramrod (if I win the lottery))Complete Everesting (3) Swimming : 50 miles , cycling 3000 miles
Plan : I would stick to the same diet of eating real foods (Veggies, egg, meat , fruits, skip sugar and grains), with intermittent fasting. Good base training with cycling and swimming with added strength training twice a week. I would also do kriya yoga at least once a week.

Personal Finance
2016, my top 2 goals : (1) Increasing the saving rate to move towards financial freedom (2) Continue to stay away from debt
  • Continued to stay away from debt, and doubled the focus on saving rate with lower focus on investment returns.
  • Continued my retirement investing to US index funds completely with 401(k), Roth IRA, Health savings account.
  • Finally managed to build the 6 month emergency fund and that also helped on overall asset allocation of my portfolio which was heavily equity biased. This will be my risk cushion
  • Biggest goal achievement was finally closing and getting my house in India which was bought for India.
  • Managed to complete the Living will through a local attorney. Also continued to regularly update the master document and managed to close on all real estate documentation work.
2017 goals : I stay with past goals and last year plan of  (1) Increasing the saving rate to move towards financial freedom (2) Continue to stay away from debt

Books
My goals for 2016, (1) Read 25 Books at an analytical level (2)  Write about 10 companies
  • Beginning of the year I started reading at a good pace, and after my India visit, I dropped my focus in reading big time. This is one of the areas where I did not hit my goal
  • I just read 8 books and had been on and off with reading. Facebook and other random web surfing had been a big time killer from reading books.
  • I did not write about even one of the company, I did start researching early in the year and that stopped mid-way.
For 2017, my top 2 goals : (1) Read 15 Books (2)  Write about 3 companies after deep research
Plan : Read 1 books a month, I already have a reading list for 2017 ready here. I will still  have the plan to read at least 25 days a day. Write a page every week and at least one post a month in the blog

Music
2016 goals were  (1) Play Aadi Talam in Mridangam fairly well (2) Memorize Rudram, and sukthams
  • Had been regular to the mridangam classes till holidays, but definitely this was lower in priority with my biking schedule.
  • I did learn the basic Aadi talam in Mridangam , but far away from playing it in greater fluency.
  • I also ensured I attended most of the monthly Seattle Rudram chanting event based on availability. I am able to chant most of the Namakam without book, but yet to memorize completely. I am able to chant most of the Sukthams.
For 2017 I keep the same goals , as I am yet to hit completely: (1) Play Aadi Talam in Mridangam (2) Memorize Rudram, and sukthams
Plan :  Practice Mridangam at least 1 day a week and attend weekly classes regularly. Memorize one stanza of Rudram every two weeks

Movies , Travel & More
I did want to reduce my movie binge watching, but definitely the movie buff in me could not control last year as well. I did watch most of the Tamil / Malayalam movies last year. Since Sakthi & Swara were in India for a good 6 months of the year, I spent most of the leisure time outside work in biking and catching up movies. This is where I could have doubled my focus on reading. On travel, we visited India in March and visited our extended family in Coimbatore, Chennai & Salem. In the summer because of biking I travelled nearby to Vancouver & Whistler. During the holidays we had a short trip to Los Angeles and Leavenworth. The biggest travel we had this year was a 10 day vacation to Hawaii. We fell in love with Hawaii, and would love to visit the beaches again. We spent good time in the beaches and a good break from the weather.  For 2017, we hope to make a visit the east coast.  Outside of work, along with my past colleagues we did spend a good amount of time in floating a math coaching company. But by the end of year just before signing up, we had to drop the plan because one of the major partner bailed 
I have been pretty bad with posting in the blog last year. But one of the posts I made on OCI application process is the most read and commented post ever in my blog. Hope to post at least one post a month in 2017. 

For 2017, my theme would be - "Year of learning". I would like to focus my learning at work and outside work in the above areas. All my goals are around learning. Hope to post more of my learning in the coming months. Happy new year 2017 every one, There will never be a day when we won't need dedication, discipline, energy, and the feeling that we can change things for the better!

STP 2016 : Recap

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This was my third attempt to complete the Seattle to Portland ride in a day. I started training for this year STP pretty late. I was in India till end of March and came back to Seattle only by April first week. By then my other biking friends have already started training regularly. I had not touched my bike since finishing last year STP. Big events in life during winter, we welcomed our little angel Swara to this world. Catching up on sleep was a big fight, so riding the bike was almost impossible during that time.
2014 - 2016 STP finisher badges
When I came back to Seattle, Sakthi & Swara stayed back in India for a few months to spend time with the extended family. So that gave me time back. I had a single goal this year to focus on complete this year STP in one day before the announced cut off time of 9pm.  By the time I started my first ride in the saddle, my training group had already done a month long of rides. So I had to start on my own to manage even a 25 mile ride. I also had gained some additional pounds last winter, and fitness level was near zero. My  first ride was just 8 miles and I could barely touch a 10 mph speed. After the first ride, I was contemplating whether I should be planning for a two day STP this year. But I slowly started to add miles every week, and I started to track every ride through my sports watch and logging them in Strava. Last year I did not pay much attention to tracking my stats post the rides, but this year I started to get into details of my post ride stats. One of my past colleague and friend Tim, was  training for RAMROD, and he was giving me tips on routes as I started to pile more miles by May. My first challenging ride I signed up was 7 hills of Kirkland century route. This had about 6000 ft elevation gain and about 11 hills to climb. I averaged only 12.2 mph but was able to complete the ride in about 10 hours of total time. Climbing those hills gave me some confidence, which showed up immediately in this year Flying wheels. Even with added elevation to the usual route, I was able to average 14mph and was able to complete the century route in about 8 hours and 22 minutes of total time. By June slowly I started to add more hill training, and I started to enjoy the challenge of climbing. The first extensive climbing I did this year was at St.Helens, in the event Tour de Blast. This was quite a challenging ride with 2 big categorized climbs of Cat 1 & 2, with 10000 Ft of total elevation.  But completing this event gave me huge confidence boost. I also started tracking my food intake to pull down my weight for better performance.  Before STP in July , I managed to shed about 15 pounds and ride ~1500 miles with some good climbing practice. 

Start line University of Washington, Seattle
Now coming to the D day, unlike last year, my friend insisted on starting the ride at the start line which gave a nice feeling to begin. I had a slow start with 2 other friends, since it was still dark and I was struggling to see the road with and the lights were not very helpful. By the time I completed the first 10 miles, it was 5 am and it was getting bright. I slowly picked pace in the at Sewards park hill, where I could drop many people. I joined a pace line which was averaging 19-20 mph and followed them till the first stop at REI. To finish early my plan was to not wait in rest stop more than 10 mins. I reached the first hill at Puyallup. With good hill training this year, the Puyallup hill was a very comfortable climb where I dropped many other riders as I went up. At mile 55, I joined a great pace line who were doing this STP as a practice ride for RAMROD. They averaged 20 mph, and they were kind enough to let me stay behind their pace line. I also stopped only at those places when this group stopped and was able to reach the midpoint at Centralia by 10.40 am well before my planned time. I had average 17 mph for the first 100 miles, my fastest 100 miles every. I took a little longer break in Centralia and took a massage to ensure I don't cramp in the rest of the ride, so I missed the earlier pace line. I left midpoint at 11.30 AM, and joined a group of 3 friends and maintained a steady pace of 18 mph. This year, the rolling hills over the next 44 miles was a fun ride. Unlike last two years, I did not have the fear of seeing the small hills and slow down drastically. I attacked every hill and went past them. I crossed the Lewis & Clark bridge by 3pm and joined one other lady called Sonia. 
We kept pulling each other for the rest 50 odd miles averaging 16-17 mph.  It was 6.45 pm when I entered Portland, ( in 2015 I reached Portland at 10 pm). With so many signals and traffic, I crossed the finish line at 7.20 PM with a  total ride time of 12 hours and 50 minutes averaging 16.1 mph over the 206 miles. The best part in this, I was feeling good and could continue ride for some additional miles.  Thankfully I did not have any mechanical problem or flat tires this year. It took me 3 attempts to have a strong one day finish STP. You can see my full ride stats here in Strava.  
Finish line, Portland
After 206 miles on the saddle!!!
On the fund raising part, raise money for educating kids in India through a non-profit.  Over the last 2 years with the help of friends & family we sent more than 15 kids to school free of tuition fee for a full year through Isha Vidhya and Asha for Education initiatives. This year my goal was to raise 1000 USD, and with all your help and support we raised 1190 USD without adding up the matching contribution from corporates like Microsoft , Amazon etc. My heartfelt thanks to my family, friends (especially Tim), Team Asha bikers and also those great pace lines who supported me in the 2016 STP journey and also contributing generously to Asha for Education.  
Looking forward to biking more on the saddle as I explore those unexplored routes, and climb those great mountains. Thank you!!!

Support me to educate a child as I bike Seattle to Portland for the third year

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Back again for the third year in succession. Biking, which came into my life out of necessity, became a passion for me. I have been into biking as a passion and a hobby for the last 6 years. Since 2013, with your support I have combined my passion for cycling with supporting a cause. Over the last 2 years with all your help, we sent more than 15 kids to school free of tuition fee for a full year through Isha Vidhya and Asha for Education initiatives. Educating a kid who is in need is like teaching someone to fish. A good education could transform the life of not just the kid but also that of his/her family. The impact is amplified more so because most of the children we support are first-generation school goers.

To continue with this effort, I will be attempting to ride from Seattle to Portland in a day (STP, 206 miles in a day) and also raise funds to educate kids in need through Asha for Education initiative. I look forward to your generous contribution to raise $5 for every mile of my ride, with a fund raising goal of $1000.

Every single dollar of donation from you shall go towards teaching under-privileged children in India. Needless to say, this shall also strengthen my resolve along every mile of this cycling expedition. As a gesture of my heartfelt appreciation, I promise to mark your names on a “gratitude poster” and wear it proudly as I cross the finish line.
If you are an employee of companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Google, (or a few others which are similar), your contribution could be even more valuable! Your employer has committed to match your donation dollar-to-dollar, typically above a fairly low threshold ($25) – thereby doubling the impact of your generosity! I will also match with 500 USD if we reach the goal whcih gets matched by Microsoft, thereby we end up having a triple match. 
Please support Asha for Education by contributing generously using the link on this page.
Looking forward to your support. Click the below Donate button to Contribute
Click the below Donate button to contribute.
Link to my profile page at Asha for Education : Hariharan Ragunathan

How to apply for OCI card for new born in USA by post - CKGS global services

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I had to go through the OCI application process for my recently born daughter in October. Thought of sharing my application process so that it would help folks who also would be in same situation. Also when I applied for OCI , I had to search in the web so much for every question I had through the process and Cox & Kings Global services site  who is the intermediary and India Passport OCI site did not have all the minor details in which I was stuck. They do cover the high level documentation process but do not cover some minor details.  In this post I will summarize the steps I went through to get my daughters OCI (Overseas citizen of India) card in less than 60 days.

Before you read the remaining : Let me re-iterate, this is application process explained below is applicable only for new-born who has an Indian origin through his/her parents or grand-parents. I was on a work visa in USA when my daughter was born here few months back.  If you are a naturalized US citizen and applying for OCI,  refer Cox & Kings Global services site and it has enough details and it is not as confusing. 

Cox & Kings Global services , an intermediary service provider, who would be facilitating you in the process of the OCI application. You never write directly to the Indian consulate in USA or to the Ministry of overseas affairs in New Delhi. Indian government has outsourced the service of facilitating Indian Visa and OCI application in other countries (especially in USA) to CKSGS.  If you are applying for OCI when you are in India  you may not reach out to CKGS.  This is a two stage process.

Step 1 : Visit  Cox & Kings Global services site to ensure they are the service providers still when you are reading this. ( I have seen BLS and CKGS fighting for these services most of the time). Check the latest process mentioned in the OCI page for new born. They keep revising this almost every couple of months. The current process as per the site, involves the following.

Step 2 :
  • Fill the online application in Government of India site. Select New OCI Registration.
  • On selecting New OCI registration the form has popup makes it very clear it is mandatory to upload Applicant's image and Applicant's signature image during OCI-Registration. 
  • This is where confusion No.1 starts. For a new born where is the signature. So do not worry, it is thumb print image you have upload. That is what I did, which came in the OCI card as well later.  I had put the thumb print of my new born in a white sheet and scanned that image.
  • You can also take a good quality photo of that thumb print with your phone. Now you would need to resize this thumb print to 1:3 aspect ratio. You can use this online tool resize it to get your scanned image to the aspect ratio of 1:3. Select the height as 200px and width as 600px in the resize tool. You should be able to download a cropped and 1:3 aspect ratio image with size restriction of 200KB.
  • For the passport photo you should not have a problem with aspect ratio as it is 1:1 and you could use the same resize tool. White background for passport photo in OCI application is allowed now, since that is the international passport standard and OCI application is complying with it. It is a 2in x 2in photo on a white background with the new born face clearly seen. I had use the services of Costco to take the photo of my new born. We had placed her on a white sheet and clicked it from the top. You might need to hold their head under the white sheet so that they don't move their head while taking photo. There is point in CKGS saying you cannot have same photo as passport photo, this is not possible for new borns. This is given mostly for folks who are applying for OCI after renunciation. In our case, we were applying for OCI immediately after US passport. Refer the specification of photos here
  • Once you have both the images in .jpeg format with less than 200KB size, you can start the fresh application form filling . You would need the USA passport details of the new born as well. 
  • In the OCI registration Part A form everything is clear, may be one box you might struggle is "Visible Marks". For new born I filled as none, which is perfectly ok, as I could not find any in our new born daughter. For address details, you can fill your current US address and it is not mandatory to fill native address or Aadhar card number for new born.
  • Once you submit Part A, you are asked to upload the passport photo and thumb impression. After uploading, you can fill the Part B , which is fairly simple. Enter details of family members living in India , in our case I had filled the details of maternal & paternal grandparents living in India.
  • Now you would need to upload documents, passport scanned copy of new born, and proof of Indian origin I had uploaded the scanned copies of the birth certificate of parents.
  • Then you would get a final application form with a barcode (which is the unique number throughout) which need to be printed and you would stick a physical photo in it.
Step 3:
  • Preparing documents copy to send to CKGS.  Use this check list from this page. Originals are not needed, I had sent all the photo copies attested by me and my wife on behalf of our daughter. We attached copies of our Passport, birth certificate (Daughter & parents), and our marriage certificate copy, parent authorization form, our visa copies ( since we were on visa), license copy as proof of address and the checklist of the documents. For notary, we visited our bank First Tech who provides free notary services for members.
  • After collecting the documents and application form printout, you would need to pay the fee to CKGS.
    • There are 2 options , you can pay online the CKGS fee + OCI fee + return Courier fee ( when they would send the OCI back). The online form may fail if you just paid the OCI+CKGS fee of ~300 dollars and missed selecting courier option in the beginning. It kept on throwing error as "duplicate details". You cannot send prepaid envelope to CKGS to send your OCI back as well. So the best option I took was attached a 15 dollar cashier's check / money order along with the documents. CKGS once received documents, immediately sent a receipt for the 15 dollars courier fee I had enclosed.
    • So if you take the route of money order or cashier's check it is simple, you check the total fee in CKGS Site. As per the site, here is the latest update for money order
Payment can be made by Credit Card / Debit Card or by Money Order / Cashier’s Check / Bankers Check in the name of ‘Cox & Kings Global Services USA LLC.Please print the name, do not hand-write it on Money Order.If submitting by Money Order/ Bankers or Cashier’s Check, kindly mention the Tracking Number / Web Reference number at the back of the Money Order/ Bankers or Cashier’s Check.
Step 4 :
  • Send all documents visa FedEx / USPS, I chose FedEx. You can also buy the FedEx courier option in CKGS, but that is confusing and prefer sending directly through a courier service.
Step 5:
  • Now it is tracking & waiting time. Here is the time estimate it took for my daughters application in SanFransico India mission. Below is the tracking info you would find in GOI site. You also have  tracking in CKGS site, which provides processing status updates outside of Indian consulate.
  • CKGS was prompt in providing updates regularly from the time sent my application till I got the OCI back. You can track your application status in CKGS site from the time CKGS receives your application till  it is submitted to Indian Consulate. After that you would need to track the status in the passport.gov site about your application. The bottleneck in this process is once the application is sent to MOIA India, it takes about 40 days to get any update. This is the longest time. Once OCI is sent back to Indian consulate, they would intimate the CKGS to request passport for matchup. Here on you would again get regular updates from CKGS.
Step 6:
  • This is match up process, when CKGS requests for passport, you would need to send by courier (FedEX / USPS) them the email you receive from CKGS requesting matchup, original passport of new born, and CKGS OCI matchup form applicable to consulate of your jurisdiction (in our case it was San Francisco), return courier payment receipt (the 15 dollars you paid for OCI return courier services)
  • CKGS provides regular updates once they receive and submit to Indian consulate for matchup. Once OCI is matched, it is sent to CKGS for mailing to us.

I sent the initial application and documents to CKGS on November 28th and received back the OCI After match up on 27th January. So it took ~60 days turnaround time.  The biggest problem I faced when applying was the CKGS payment which was not working fine. But if you chose money order/ cashier's check it would be smooth as well. CKGS has been working so much in the last few months in improving their site, and I have seen a drastic change in their website since I applied in November. 
Hope this was useful for you. If you had some other good info, please leave in the comments, that might help other folks who are also going through this long and tedious process of OCI application for their new born kids. 

How to read a book

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I wish I had read this book before I was 20, or at least during the time I was preparing for competitive exams for my MBA. "How to read a book" is a must read for all those people who are interested to improve their reading skills. I picked this book for the new from my antilibrary to be in pace with my new year resolution to read 25 pages every day and am super glad I started the year with this book. I will summarize the key takeaway. Here are few excerpts, 

There are 4 basic questions a demanding reader should ask a book
  • What is the book about as a whole?
  • What is being said in detail,and how?
  • Is this book True, in Whole or Part?
  • What of it?
I am making a point to ask these questions on all the books I would read hereafter. There are four levels of reading we can do,

  1. Elementary reading
  2. Inspectional reading
  3. Analytical reading
  4. Syntopical reading
Elementary reading, is something which all of pick up from our school on how to read letters, words and sentences and make meaning out of it. Which we pick up as we grow up. Inspectional reading on the other hand is trying to get the maximum info about any piece of article or book in a given time. But the focus of the book was on the higher levels of reading mainly analytical and syntopical reading. Analytical reading is truly a way to become a very demanding reader. Analytical reading can be grouped into 3 stages - structural, interpretive and critical. 
Stage 1 : Structural reading
  • Classify the book according to subject matter
  • State what is the whole book about with utmost brevity
  • Enumerate the major parts in their order and relation and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
  • Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve
Stage 2 : Interpretive reading
  • Come to terms with the author by interpreting the key words
  • Grasp the leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
  • Know the author's arguments by finding them in or constructing the out of sequence of sentences
  • Determine which of the problem the author has solved and which he has not.
Stage 3: Critical reading
  • Do not begin to criticize before completing the book outline and interpretation
  • Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
  • Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make
  • How to criticize : Show where in the author is uninformed, mis-informed, illogical and author's analysis is incomplete
The author also covered in detail how to read various types of books starting from practical books, novels, plays, history and philosophy and social science.  On the face of it, it may look philosophical books are the best for analytical reading. But, books of the highest class - the books that seem to have grown with you as you read them are that would require us to read analytically. Poor Charlie Almanack, Anti Fragile by Taleb and Letters to shareholders by Buffet are a few books that I read last year which I would read again analytically. 

The highest level of reading is Syntopical reading. This involves reading multiple relevant books on a same subject to understand various arguments by various authors to improve our understanding. It was so coincidental that I was reading  Gary Taubes book on Good calories and Bad calories later this month. Gary Taubes is one of the finest Syntopical reader who read more than 1000+ books , articles and research papers on food and nutrition to write his book. If you have not read that book, it is a must read.  Here are the steps in syntopical reading, 
Stage 1  Surveying the field / prep work
  1. Create a tentative bibliography
  2. Inspect all of them to ascertain which are germane to your subject and also acquire a clearer idea of the subject
You would do the two steps again and again until you have a good list of reads
Stage 2 : Syntopical reading of the list filtered
  • Inspect the books already identified as relevant to the subject in order to find the relevant passages
  • Bring the authors to terms by constructing neutral terminology of the subject that all or great majority of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not
  • Establish a set of neutral propositions for all the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers.
  • Define the issues both major and minor one, by ranging opposing answers by authors to the various questions one side of the an issue or another
  • Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in a such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones , and relation among issues should be clearly indicated. 
For social science topics, syntopical reading works best and especially if you are someone in the path to multi disciplinary thinking advocated by Charlie Munger, you would appreciate this level of reading the most.  Here is the excerpt from the book that I loved so much, 

There is a strange fact about the human mind, a fact that differentiates the mind sharply from the body. The body is limited in ways that the mind is not. One sign of this is that the body does not cotinue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace. By the time most of people are thirty years old, their bodies are as a good as they will ever be; in fact , many persons' body have begun to deteriorate by that time. But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. The mind does not stop growing at any particular age, only when the brain itself loses its vigor, in senescence , does the mind lose its power to increase in skill and understanding.
 This is one of the most remarkable things about human beings and it may actually be the major difference between homo sapiens and the other animals, which do not seem to grow mentally beyond a certain stage in their development. But the great advantage that man possess carries with it a great peril. The mind can atrophy. Like muscles, if its not used. Atrophy of the mental muscles is the penalty that we pay for not taking mental exercise.
 Television, radio and all the sources of amusement and information that surrounds us in our daily lives are also artificial props. They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because we are required to react to stimuli from outside. But the power of those external stimuli to keep us going is limited. They are like drugs. We grow used to them and we continuously need to more and more of them. Eventually , they have little or no effect. Then if we lack resources within our selves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally and spriutually. And wehen we cease to grow, we begin to die. Reading well, which means reading actively , is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.

(Emphasis mine). I started to appreciate reading more when I understood the power of compounding and how our brain works. I would like to continue to my reading journey every day with this goal of at-least 25 pages a day. If you want to learn how to read, do read this book How to read a book by Mortime adler without fail. 

2015 Recap

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I called 2015 as "Best year ever". As I reflect today, it was indeed one of the best years in my life personally and professionally. Before I recap my last year, similar to what I have written in the past, I will call out some big personal milestones that occurred in 2015. Sakthi officially became my better half in January, and we also welcomed our little angel Swara in October.  Became a husband and also father, double promotion in the last one year:). Professionally I made a big career change - after being in human resources for about 5+ years, I moved to a technical product management role in Bing search user experience (Microsoft has a title of Program Managers unlike the industry). It definitely got me to closer to one of my passions- technology. So that sums up some big changes at home and work, among many other things that happened in the last one year.  Now let us review actions in my passionate areas in 2015 and goals for 2016.

Technology :
My Goal for 2015 was to make a shift in my career where I get to work closely with technology.
  • Did some good research and experimentation on streaming services technology in the industry and even wrote a review on various devices available in the market like Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast etc. It is one of the most read posts in my blog ever in the last 10 years. I even got an advertisement sponsor for my blog from one of the streaming channels. Did some good research on prepaid phone plans in the US , which I have reviewed here.
  • Got hooked into researching on the tech business models like, on demand services etc. along with few other friends. This is still in infancy. 
  • Dirtied my hands with Android app programming, by setting up the environment to creating some basic screens. Took a course in Udacity to learn android programming and  open APIs. After many years, dabbled again with programming, leant some new stuff.
  • My job post October got me closer to technology, so have been learning HTML, CSS and JavaScript to better understand how to build awesome user experience. Even revamped my blog theme with a great theme from BlogTipsnTricks.
For 2016, my goals outside of work are : (1) Swift programming (2) Machine learning basics.
Plan : I would try to attend some MOOCs, read few books and build some basic app and some basic classifier or spam filter to deepen my learning in the coming months.

Health & Fitness
2015 goal was to complete STP in a day , and a stretch goal of completing Lake Stevens Ironman 70.3.
  • Completed STP in 18 hours , with a sprained leg and a broken rear derailleur in my bike. Trained well with Asha Seattle biking group and raised close to 600+ USD for the cause of educating kids in India. Checkout my training summary in this video.
  • Could not participate in any other events like lake to lake swim, GrandFondo or Ironman 70.3. My fitness levels varied through the year, beginning of January was my peak level of fitness and gradually deteriorated by the year end. Irregular exercise schedules and erratic (over) eating behaviors due to stress were back last year.
  • By end of the year got back some focus to eating better, tried master cleanse in March and again in December. Those provided some sanity, and some experiments with food and exercise helped me to maintain my vital numbers in the safe range. By December, I switched my diet to eat more real food, and reduced intake of processed foods or grains.
For 2016, my top 3 goals for fitness are  : (1) Get body fat level to below 20% (2) One day finish at STP  (3) Swimming : 300 miles , cycling 1000 miles
Plan : I would stick to the same diet of eating real foods (Veggies, egg, meat , fruits, skip sugar and grains), with intermittent fasting. Regular at swimming (learn flip, dive) and cycling. 

Personal Finance
I did not set clear goals for 2015, but just called out that I need to act more with changes in my life.
  • With FATCA / FBAR regulations, I completely stopped investing in Indian mutual funds. Switched my residential accounts to NRO/NRE accounts
  • Reworked on the asset allocation of my mother's portfolio and built a comprehensive master document
  • Moved my retirement investing to US index funds completely - Increases 401(K) contributions and started investing in Roth IRA. Aggressively invested in Health savings account, which helped in all the hospital expenses I had last year for my wife's delivery and emergency visits. 
  • Built emergency corpus separately in US , doubled my term insurance coverage with the increase in dependents.
  • Continued to stay away from debt, and focused on savings rate (% of income surplus saved) rather than investment returns as a key metric for improving. Tracked my spending pretty well inspite of high expenses by end of the year with life changing events.
For 2016, my top 2 goals : (1) Increasing the saving rate to move towards financial freedom (2) Continue to stay away from debt
Plan : Do a good risk management, with options to handle unforeseen events. Manage expenses diligently and relook every recurring expenses.

Books
For 2015, I had a goal to improve my reading habit and read more books.
  • I did spend a good amount of time reading about 21 books, and also reviewed them most of the times in this blog. 
  • Taleb became my favorite author, read 3 of his books. Got inspired deeply by Charlie Munger & Warren Buffet's writing.
  • Goodreads gave a good summary of my reads here
  • My major focus areas of reading were Finance, investing, business, randomness & Mathematics
For 2016, my top 2 goals : (1) Read 25 Books at an analytical level (2)  Write about 10 companies
Plan : Read 2 books a month, and increase comprehension by writing regularly. Write analysis of 1 company a month and read 25 pages a day. Write a page every week.

Music
This used to be holding bucket to write about any other thing I spend time like movies, travel, music  etc. So did not write my goals last year. Now I have forked it to Music as an area of focus and reduce my involvement in things like movies.
  • Had been scratchy with my Tabla classes. I almost gave up on learning a musical instrument mid of the year, but luck got me a Mridangam teacher in Seattle.
  • My mom gave me an audio clip of Rudram 7 years ago when I was in XLRI. Have been listening to it almost every other day. But only in the past year I learnt to chant them. Now I am able to chant Lagunyasam, Namakam & Chamkam  along with Purushasuktam. Have got associated with Seattle Rudram chanting group and attended ekadasa Rudram (11 times) chanting every month.
Goals for 2016 : (1) Play Aadi Talam in Mridangam fairly well (2) Memorize Rudram, and sukthams
Plan :  Practice Mridangam at least 2 days a week and attend weekly classes regularly. Memorize one stanza of Rudram a week.

Movies , Travel & More
So there had been no goal are intentional focus in this area always. I used to enjoy watching movies and it was the biggest time killer. I did watch most of the Tamil movies last year, and by end of the year with added responsibilities, could not catch up with new movies. I did travel to a some new places in January after marriage. Visited Singapore, Indonesia (Bali) for our honeymoon.  Short trips to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Colorado & Vancouver, Canada. The second half of the year with Swara's arrival our travel bags are in the backburner, but pretty excited about our travel to India in March 2016 to visit our extended family.  Wrote at least one post a month in this blog, and hope to write every month next year as well. That is a 2015 summary of productive things I did other than my day job or personal time with family. 2015 was a year with so many changes and I called "Best year ever".


For 2016 , my theme is going to be "Intentional Focus" . Will do a detailed post on this theme, but in brief I would want to reduce distractions and doing too many things without getting deeper in few key things. Intentionally focus on activities that are related to only on (no particular order)  - Improving productivity at work, Spending quality time with my family, Focus on achieving my goals set on Tech, Health & Fitness , Personal Finance, Books (includes writing) & Music

Reflecting and writing about the last year made me think deeply on things I can improve for the next year. The goals and plan should set the stage for the next year. I will also post very short progress report against goals every quarter, which will make me accountable and get serious.



Happy new year every one!

Success Equation: Role of Skill & Luck

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In one of the blogs on value investing  I read about the book success equation by Michael Mouboussin. Spent the last couple of weeks on reading this book. If you have read Taleb's Fooled by randomness, you would get the core of this book by just browsing the cover.But Michael Mauboussin focus on the role of luck and skill in specifically three areas - Sports, Investing and Business. Taleb never focused on sports in any of his books, because it never interested him as he calls that prostituted randomness. 

But in this book Michael Maubossin the biggest area of focus is untangling role of skill and luck in Sports. He does cover business and investing along with sports, but sports take the larger share. He does look into various research by sabermetrics he has used is present in almost every other chapter. Hence I understood some metrics related to baseball better after reading this book. But leaving that focus aside, he tries to get across the point that - role of luck plays a larger share in some areas compared to skill for success. By placing the various sports in the skill and luck continuum, he shows how role of skill can and luck can be untangled in each of those sports success. If roulette and baccarat are games to be placed on the extreme side of luck , chess and swimming would be in the extreme side of skill. Then there is a lot of sports that could be placed between these extremes. Let me not repeat what is in book, and leave it to the readers interpretation. But here are some of the key take away in the book, (the ordering is based on my own preference)
  1. The more skillful players enter the game, more skill is required, but along with this increased skill the role of luck increases in determining success. 
  2. When skill plays a larger role in success - focus on deliberate practice with a good feedback system in place (like a coach, mentor). But hours and hours of practice would push that small increment in skill which differentiates the experts from the rest of the majority.
  3. When luck play a larger role in success - the outcome is probabilistic in nature - focus on sticking to the right process. This is similar concept what you would learn in Bhagavad-Gita. Work with what you do seem to understand, and do not worry about the rest. This would ensure that you don't have large loss but you may hit with some occasional huge success sticking to the process.
  4. When you compete with a weaker player try to compete on own turf and directly, but when you compete with weaker player try to change the game and dont fight their own turf.
  5. Focus on the right statistic given more and more luck is getting involved in the success. Especially the
He does reiterate some of the concepts from Taleb on how to handle things in the Fourth quadrant or the black swan domain where there is extreme pay off and unpredictable outcomes as introduced by Taleb in his Black swan, how do we handle things. Overall a quick and good read , especially if you baseball statistics, you would enjoy reading this book.

Prepaid / International calling : Cheap phone and calling plans for NRIs in USA

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I moved to the US in 2013 and have been always looking for the best mobile plan which suits my customized need.  Let me profile my need, so if you fit this profile my choice might help you in choosing a best phone option. Disclaimer : This is a first person narrative, and not a paid review for any services I have called out

  • Cost of the Device / Contracts : Being from India, it was so hard for me understand how people see the carrier subsidized device like the 199$ iPhone  that is with a contract and high cost plans. I really hated those contracts and high monthly phone bills.
  • Price : Going with my frugality principle : A cheapest option for Voice , data & Text
  • Voice : Most of my calls are going to be International , especially to India. I was using very less talk time to call someone within US.
  • Text : Hardly used text, except those service messages from banks. Given we have WhatsApp, We-chat, Skype and gazillion option this is the least I wanted
  • Data : I even tried plans without data for a couple of months since I have Wi-Fi at home and office. But definitely could not survive especially some critical needs when I am out and needed to know about nearby restaurants / movies  or even for navigation using Nokia Here / Google maps. The need for data was critical, but I would say not something unlimited. I tried to log my average data usage to see what is my real need. Anything between 2GB- 3GB per month at 4g LTE / 3G speed is comfortable data limit and speed to manage. I even include the often usage of social apps, and my regular news reader Feedly , Mint etc. when I am not in Wi-Fi zones.
  • International Calling : I use about 1000-1200 minutes of international voice talking to my family and friends in India every month. Even though WhatApp , Viber, Skype, Facebook messenger offers voice calling free to folks who are in these apps , when I need to speak with some one in India who does not have a good internet connection or even a smart phone then definitely I need to call their mobile number or land line number. 

With the above needs, I initially scourged all the possible regular post-paid plans in T-Mobile, AT&T (GSM Only, since I had a GSM) and later even Sprint / Verizon. Overall the postpaid plans were definitely not cheaper options. Given I was one of those rare customers looking for Bring your own phone plans.  The next option was prepaid , which do not require any credit checks and you know what would be your monthly phone bill expense pretty clearly.  So all my options after this initial screening was only prepaid. If you have an unlocked phone with you and with the usage profile mentioned above, prepaid plans works out cheaper and most predictable monthly cost for most of you.

Prepaid phone with MVNO + International Calling cards : Prepaid options works out cheaper in USA for the usage something like above. The option that worked best in these were - Straight Talk bring your own phone from Walmart. This is a gem of a plan which is not so common outside of the college kids. You can get a 45 dollar +tax monthly pre-paid plan with unlimited voice & text (includes Global Text) and data. Here the unlimited data has a caveat - the first 5GB comes at 4G LTE speed and after which expect 2G speeds only. No carry over of the unused data speeds every month. Very fixed outgo you have every month with a solid service. Because you have choice to choose the GSM network when you buy. They have AT&T or T-Mobile option. My wife runs AT&T Straight Talk and I had T-Mobile. AT&T had better network coverage as expected. So if you do have auto renewal every month enabled, then including tax your monthly outgo per person is going to be only 48 dollars. Don’t bother about any huge bills every month. Best suited for 1 or 2 member family. 

Now for the international calling, first option I tried was Vonage. My decision after using was - please avoid this. They were giving 9.99 per month promotional 6 month plan but still you would pay about 25 dollars including some service tax +Fee. Post that expect 50 dollars for this service per month  which offers about 3000 minutes of international calling. Again this is a physical phone device at home using your internet to call. So my decision was to move away from Vonage after the initial promotional period was over. They do give a Vonage extension to call from your mobile directly. Even then it definitely does not fit my bill.

International Calling Cards : PhoneIndia.com is the best one so far I have tried. To give a list of options I tried - IndiaLD, Reliance Calling Card, Viber Out, Skype Minutes, Rebtel. I landed with phone India as the best option because of price and ease of use. They give about 1400 mins at 10 dollar a month. You can have access numbers to call someone through your voice connection. Also it gives an option of an App - Keep Calling (Android | iOS). So both my wife and I had this app installed that pulled the contacts from our phone book. We also could tag favorites. So both of us could call from our respective phones through this app, and it used our phone data connection / Wi-Fi as applicable. Sometimes we also used the access numbers to call. But overall a very seamless experience at a lower cost. So you can manage your total phone bill in about 100-110 dollars for 2 person family.

Prepaid  MVNO with International Calling Ultra Mobile is the latest on the block targeting the immigrant population in USA. This is started by the founder of India LD. Ultra-mobile focus is to have direct calling to India or other 60 destinations around the world. The 29 dollar plan offers Unlimited voice and text (includes global text) plus 1 GB 4G LTE Speed and after which unlimited data at lower speeds. The biggest addition is unlimited calling ( fair usage policy apply) to 60 international destinations which includes India/ China and 1000 international voice minutes to additional 15 destinations. You can directly call those countries with the international code and no more access numbers. So this option is really testing waters to pull the price of international calling. Currently Ultra mobile runs only on T-Mobile, so I am just testing with my phone. So far good, but it still comes out with less 4G LTE data compared to Straight Talk. There is also an option to top up your data during the 30 day period of validity with 1 GB of data for 10 dollars. So Straight talk gives a 5GB data at high speed bu default, if I add that 5GB limit by top ups in this plan this would be adding additional 40 dollars. But since my data usage has been very less every month, my overall bill has reduced below the 100 dollar threshold including the expenditure on international calling. To pull that down, I have to either go for lower data which is sensible option given wifi at office / home. You can give a try. So ultra mobile is my current plan, and my wife still is in Straight talk.

I have given my choices and what worked best in my scenarios. You could choose any of them if that works for you. 

Disclaimer : This is not a paid product review, these are just my opinions based on my usage in the last 2 years and may have missed out some options. So if you find something better please leave it in the comment