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Home away from home

Some say that home is where the heart is. But when you travel for work, you end up leaving your loved ones behind on a regular basis, and feeling at home in some random hotel room can be quite a challenge. Over the years, I have developed a few strategies to feel at home wherever I go.

Single hotel chain

Whenever possible, I always book a room from the same hotel chain. In my case, I picked Hyatt, because it offers the best range of options in the places where I travel most, especially in Asia. Beside points and status, sticking to the same hotel chain brings familiarity, from the scent of the soap, to the habits of the staff, or the rules that govern minibar consumptions.

Same hotel

If you end up traveling a lot to the same places, going back to the same hotels reinforces this feeling of familiarity. After a while, you know where the gym is, whether you need to bring your own towel, or whether the sauna is set at the right temperature (I love sauna). Eventually, you’ll know which dishes should be picked at the hotel’s restaurant, or whether you’ll find better options at a nearby joint. For example, when I used to stay at the excellent Sheraton Miyako in Tokyo, I would always have dinner at a sushi restaurant that was a 5-minute stroll away, and I knew precisely where I could pickup and drop an umbrella in case it was raining.

Same hotel rooms

Once you become accustomed to a particular hotel, time might come to pick your favorite room and stick to it. That way, you will always know where all the light switches are, which is quite nice when you wake up in the middle of the night with a severe case of jet lag. Over time, you will learn to appreciate the view that you have from your room, or all the little imperfections that you might notice on walls or some pieces of furniture. For example, my favorite room at the fabulous Park Hyatt Tokyo is located on the 45th floor, a short walk away from the sauna, and with a direct view of Fujisan. Whenever I check in that room, I experience a deep home-sweet-home feeling that I would not trade for anything.

Music

Playing some familiar tunes in your hotel room is another good way to feel at home. Fortunately, streaming services like Spotify are making it easy to play virtually any kind of music you might like, directly from your laptop of cellphone. From there, sound quality becomes the next challenge. As a music lover, I cannot be satisfied with the quality of the sound coming out of my laptop, and very few hotels provide decent speakers onto which you can plug a phone.

For some time, I have been carrying my Grain Audio PWS around. While I love it, I do not want to bear the extra weight, especially now that everything is on my back or on my shoulder (Cf. Nomad). I have also tried various combinations of cables for plugging my laptop to the in-room media center, but every setup is different, and I usually do not feel like fighting with RCA cables after a long flight. Clearly, the best solution would be to use AirPlay, and I really wish that some Hyatt manager is reading this post right now…

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life

My inspiration

Two nights ago, my father passed away. More than anyone else, he was a profound source of inspiration for me. What I am doing today, I owe it to him. And my love for computers is my father’s legacy. When I was eight or nine, he told me that “computers never make any mistakes.” From that moment on, I was hooked.

Mohammed Ghalimi was a sociologist, fascinated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu. As such, he had to practice statistics and use a minicomputer at the university. I remember going with him into a dimly lit room and looking with wonderment at the glowing green screen showing numbers that made no sense to me at the time, but seemed to be of unique value to him. These numbers would then get printed on reams of green bar paper, which provided limitless supplies of media for my early drawings of fancy buildings and intergalactic spaceships.

At 10, I watched Whiz Kids on TV, and my inner geek was born. From then on, I became obsessed with the idea of having my own computer. My family had relatively modest means, therefore could not afford such an expensive purchase. For a while, all I could do was nurturing some dreams while flipping through the pages of SVM, the first computer magazine in France. I then went to middle school and enrolled into the computer club, where I learned rudimentary Basic programming skills on a Commodore VIC-20. PRINT and GOTO became parts of my vocabulary. And 3.5KB of memory was all I had to play with. Eventually, my father convinced some friends to lend us a French-made Thomson MO5, with 48KB of memory. A full order of magnitude improvement over my first setup. I could barely believe it…

Somehow, my very first program was not much different from what I am doing today: a simple barchart. And this is when I realized that I was not a very good programmer, because without knowing the existence of the FOR loop, I had to copy and paste the same chunk of code 20 times if I wanted to draw a chart made of 20 bars. DRY, I certainly was not…

A couple of years later, my family’s financial situation improved a bit, and my father and I drove to town on a Saturday afternoon to buy an Amstrad PC1512. With 512KB of memory, it gave me another order of magnitude improvement over my previous rig, and a real operating system. With it, I got my first spreadsheet (Multiplan), and my first database (dBase III+). One Summer, my father hired me to help him with data entry work for some statistical study. I spent days recording survey answers, and became a virtuoso typist with the numeric keypad.

Eventually, I went to high school, and my father upgraded to a 386 PC, which provided a faster CPU and more memory, but felt to me like an incremental improvement over the 8086. Truth be told, I was much more fascinated by the Apple Macintosh (and the Next), but it would be another 15 years before I could afford one.

Two years later, my father hired me again to write a database application for processing student registrations. I was 17, and this job helped me finance my very first trip to Japan. Back in 2009, I invited him to spend a week with me in Tokyo and Kyoto. This was our second and last trip together where we would be just the two of us. A time of blessing.

Looking back at all these years, it feels like what I am doing today (a Big Data Spreadsheet) is nothing more than the kind of tool that my father would have liked to use. Part spreadsheet, part database, with a solid pivot table and some nice charts. And as I am educating myself on the subject of machine learning, I keep marveling at the legacy of Pierre Bourdieu, my father’s role model, who pioneered the use of multiple correspondence analysis in the field of social sciences. It all makes sense now…

Dad, when you count the stars in the sky, you can use my tool.

And that will be all thanks to you.

Thank you dad. Thank you!

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life

Farewell dad

GHALIMI

G — H — A — L — I — M — I

GHALIMI

This name means nothing. It is a pure invention of the French colonial administration. A simple approximation. A misspelling.

GHA — LI — MI

Of these seven letters, I pick three.

The first? The second one. H. Why this one? Because you can’t hear it. Unless you pronounce it Rhalimi. But here, we say Ghalimi. Like we say Ahmed. Or Mohammed. Yet the H is there…

Mohammed Rhalimi. Capital H, as in Human. The husband. The father. But before being a husband or a father, Mohammed Ghalimi was a humanist. A lover of the human spirit, bent on discovering its inner workings. A disciple of Bourdieu the sociologist. A son of Pierre and Marie-Odette, his foster parents. Un man full of travails, passions, and affections.

What a man!

And the second one? I off course. I because there are two of them: GHA — LI — MI.

I, as in Integrity. Because a man full of travails and passions will only make sense through his integrity. His absolute necessity to respect his own beliefs, his own knowledge, his own decisions. And this integrity is what drew us to him. It fostered sympathy, affection, then love (amour).

Amour with a capital A. The third letter of his name.

Three letters, like his three children.

Amour.

Amour.

Amour.

To my father, Mohammed Ghalimi, 1948 – 2014

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life

Au revoir papa

GHALIMI

G — H — A — L — I — M — I

GHALIMI

Ce nom ne veut rien dire. C’est une pure invention, de l’administration coloniale française. Une simple approximation. Une erreur d’orthographe.

GHA — LI — MI

De ces sept lettres, j’en retiens trois.

La première ? La seconde. H. Pourquoi celle-là ? Parce qu’on ne l’entend pas. Sauf si l’on prononce Rhalimi. Mais ici, on dit Ghalimi. Comme on dit Ahmed. Ou Mohammed. Pourtant, le H est bien là.

Mohammed Rhalimi. Avec un grand H, comme l’Homme. Le mari. Le père. Mais avant d’être un mari ou un père, Mohammed Ghalimi était un humaniste. Un amoureux du genre humain, épris de comprendre ses tenants et aboutissants. Un disciple de Bourdieu le sociologue. Un fils de Pierre et Marie-Odette, ses parents d’accueil. Un homme plein de ses tiraillements, de ses passions, et de ses affections.

Quel homme !

Et la seconde ? I biensûr. I parce qu’il y en a deux : GHA — LI — MI.

I comme Intégrité. Parce que l’homme plein de tiraillements et de passions n’a de sens que de par son intégrité. Sa nécessité absolue de respecter ses croyances, ses savoirs, et ses décisions. Et cette intégrité, c’est elle qui nous attirait à lui. C’est elle qui créait la sympathie, l’affection, et puis l’amour.

Amour avec un grand A. La troisième lettre de son nom.

Trois lettres, comme ses trois enfants.

Amour.

Amour.

Amour.

À mon père, Mohammed Ghalimi, 1948 – 2014

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Nomad

By any standard, I am what you could call a modern nomad. Today, I split my time between Singapore (my home base) and Palo Alto (one week every month). And by next month I will also spend a week a month split between London and Paris. At this pace, I will fly over 200,000 actual miles this year. Once you get used to the jet lag, luggage becomes the next challenge, and I consider myself an expert in that area. In fact, I’ve become so good at it that before long, I should be able to carry with me the bulk of my material possessions wherever I go, without ever having to check any piece of luggage in.

This rather aggressive luggage optimization process is part of my Reduce, Rent, Refine project, and is the result of many streams of reduction and optimization. Among them, I could explain how I simplified my wardrobe, which bags I am using to carry my few things around, and what you will find in these bags. Beside these items, I do not own much: a bicycle at my office in Palo Alto, a couple of unwrapped original iPhones in a bank’s safe, a few extra pieces of clothing in Singapore, and a handful of items that I will get rid of before the end of the year.

Clothing

By far, the hardest thing to reduce for a reductionist like myself is clothing. No matter where you live, you need to wear something on your skin. And if you happen to live in society, it is considered best practice to wash it at regular intervals, which means that you need multiple copies of it, unless you like to socialize in laundromats.

To work around this problem, I have fully standardized my attire. Others have done the same for convenience purposes, mostly because it frees them from asking themselves what they should wear on any given day. In my case, this strategy was motivated by multiple factors:

  • Coordinating all possible combinations of clothes
  • Layering clothes to accommodate different climates
  • Ensuring that changes could be acquired anywhere
  • Removing the need for dry cleaning or ironing
  • Enhancing comfort during long flights
  • Reducing luggage weight
  • Reducing packing time

As a result, my wardrobe is entirely made of name-brand items in neutral colors. Following years of experimentations, I have now settled on the following configuration:

  • North Face jacket (warm, waterproof, lightweight)
  • North Face sweater (warm, lightweight)
  • Muji polo shirts and T-shirts (good quality, very low price)
  • Calvin Klein underwear (good quality)
  • Levi’s jeans (good quality, very low price on Amazon)
  • Calvin Klein ankle socks (good quality, small to pack)
  • Campers shoes (lightweight and comfortable, albeit expensive)

Whether I’m in Palo Alto, New York, London, Paris, Johannesburg, Singapore, Sydney, or Tokyo (all places that I visited this year), I know where to find any of these items. And more often than not, I simply order changes ahead of time, and have them shipped wherever I plan to be next. I also make sure to always carry a folding umbrella on all my trips, which allows me to carry fewer changes.

Bags

Once you have put a wardrobe together, you need a bag to carry it around, and I’m a bit of a luggage freak. Over the years, I must have purchased over 100 different bags and suitcases, small and large. Eventually, I settled on a backpack, for multiple reasons:

  • My standard attire does not include a suit
  • I do not want to check any bag in (faster, less risky)
  • I do not want to roll a large suitcase down the aisle
  • I do not want to worry about an oversize suitcase
  • I want both hands to be free at all times

The only drawback of a backpack is that you have to carry it on your back instead of rolling it. Obviously, this would not be an option for anyone with back problems. But in my case, I found that if I pack light enough, I am fine carrying it around for a while.

With that in mind, I looked for a backpack that would be very sturdy, yet would not look out of place in a high-end hotel lobby. The one I found is made by Brooks in the United Kingdom, and has the extra benefit of being a rucksack. As a result, its variable geometry allows me to use it to carry my entire wardrobe when I’m on the move, or just a few grocery items when I’m at home. And thanks to its innovative shoulder straps, it’s a lot more comfortable than a messenger bag when riding a bicycle. When fully packed, this wonderful bag includes:

  • My clothes organized into three Tumi packing cubes
  • My toiletry kit stored in a smaller Tumi packing cube
  • My workout gear stored in a Tumi toiletry bag
  • My folding umbrella
  • My travel wallet with spare passport, credit cards, and currencies
  • My chopsticks and mug

Beside the backpack, I also carry a small messenger bag, for two main reasons: first, I need something small that I can put under the seat in front of me in an airplane; second, I need something lightweight that I can carry to meetings. Therefore, when selecting this bag, the goal was to find something as small as possible that could contain everything that I need to carry around. After quite a bit of research, I settled an the ONA Leather Price Street bag, which I stuff with the following items:

  • 13” Apple PowerBook laptop and its charger
  • Apple iPad Air 2 tablet
  • Leica M-P 240 with a single lens and a leather case
  • Mini toiletry kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, eye drops, etc.)
  • Slim pouch filled with various cables and SIM cards
  • Bose active noise reduction headset
  • Montblanc rollerball pen

I like this bag, but it’s not perfect. First, it’s a tiny bit too tight for all the things that I must put in it. Second, while the leather quality is great, the design and stitching leave quite a few things to be desired. Therefore, I am likely to switch between a few bags until I find the right one, most likely in Japan.

With my backpack and my messenger bag, I am not just carrying most of my belongings with me, I am carrying them on me, making me not just a nomad, but the nomad’s camel as well. This gives me a sense of freedom that is hard to describe but is quite satisfying.

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