Becoming a Spartan

Many people ask me why I like running OCRs (Obstacle Course Races). Many don’t get why I would voluntarily spend a few hours rolling through mud, climb ropes to nowhere, dive under freezing cold (muddy) water, crawl under barbed wire, carry a 100lb rock around with no specific purpose, and generally end up with a few bruises, some minor cuts, and scratches all over; and return home with dirt and mud everywhere.

What is the point? they ask. They are right. There’s no obvious point. I am not fighting a war. I’m not escaping from anywhere.

I don’t run competitively. I am not looking for a trophy or medal. I don’t care about passing other runners. I do it because it is uncomfortable and difficult. The purpose is simple: practice discomfort. When “real”, unexpected, unplanned discomfort arrives by fate; I am trained. I am less stressed, not surprised, less concerned, more hopeful, and generally better prepared.

Let’s say I ran out of gas driving my car. And the nearest gas station is 5km away. It might not be fun to walk 10Km with a couple of 2 gallon gas containers. Having run a Spartan race, I know I can do it, with ample margin. Uncomfortable? Yes. A preferred situation? No. The end of the world? not even close.

Train for life. Train with life. Train by life. Aroo!

The Man in the Arena

A fragment of Theodore Roosevelt’s speech that has made its way into history and will be remembered longer than others is “The Man in the Arena”. It speaks directly to anyone doing something of any value.

Are you a student, an entrepreneur, a sports person, a teacher, a doctor, a fireman, a politician? (yes, some of them do something of value too, like anyone else). Are you doing anything of significance? This paragraph is for you:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Many things in life are hard and not necessarily valuable, but almost everything valuable is hard. And building that is full of pitfalls, reverses, mistakes and misses. And some people will criticize you and be quick to point out all those mistakes you made. With ZERO skin in the game.

But, perhaps inadvertently, they are making you a favor because…the Obstacle is the Way. Remember that everyone has an opinion. But an opinion is not the truth. Opinions are not facts. Opinions are imperfect perspectives, from imperfect beings, with imperfect perceptions, imperfectly conveyed; and imperfectly understood.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Viktor Frankl

And of course, the same, equivalent ancient wisdom from Epictetus:

When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it. It is not the things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. Things and people are not what we wish them to be nor are they what they seem to be. They are what they are.”Epictetus

Also, we often times misunderstand failure. Failure is not what we think it is. Failure is not the end, but the beginning of a new journey, with some newly acquired experience. A journey for which we can be better equipped.

Another quote from a magnificent Stoic:

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” – Seneca.

Hiking Hadrian’s Wall

A few years ago, I planned to tour Europe as I always did in our business. I thought it would be cool to retrace the steps of Roman Legionaries and Auxiliaries on Hadrian’s Wall with my team. Then 2020 came and with it, the global COVID pandemic which put a stop on all our travel. We were confined to our homes for months.

External forces might put on hold our actions, but nothing can put on hold our hopes and intentions except ourselves. And so, while COVID might have postponed the actual trip, I continued to imagine, plan, read, and discuss what that trip would look like. I also started learning Latin and over two years became reasonably proficient.

Two years and a half later, here I am in the UK, with part of my team, walking Hadrian’s Wall. I originally wanted to walk it all of it (about 80 miles from coast to coast), but having only one weekend available, we decided to just hike the middle part for around 40 Km.

Near Carlisle

Very appropriately, the day of the hike, I reached 800 days streak on Duolingo for Latin:

Members of the 20th Legion “Valeria Victrix” quarried, shaped, and carried the stones along the magnificent english countryside. They knew what they were doing, taking advantage of natural obstacles. Every roman soldier was a builder. It shows.

I walk and pretend to be one of them. Like many of them, I am far from home. I miss my family. I imagine and feel for a minute the anxiety of an imminent attack from the north, although the only threatening thing here is the cow dung I might step into inadvertently. I approach a milecastle and climb the ladder that leads to the door.

I smell the smoke from the stove and the nice dinner waiting for me and my comrades. MARCVS is a great cook and always enjoys making something up for the whole CONTVBERNIVM. Perhaps I can get some money back playing dice with my COMITES. Soon, it be my turn to get up there and switch places with IVLIVS. IVLIVS comes from CARNVNTVM. Tough guy, but good friend. My other mates are from all over the IMPERIVM.

Our CENTVRIO LOVSIVS SVAVIS came on a surprise visit. He’s a tough, grumpy old fella. He’s got more scars than I can count. No one doubts his courage, and we follow him with a mix of fear and admiration. He makes sure we are all disciplined and keep our kits in good shape.

I heard MASCVLI men drank all the beer, and he’s requested more. Good, maybe we’ll get some far up here. VINDOLANDA tends to get all the perks.

Last month, I was sent on duty to another section if the LIMES. This part has a gate into the north.

Any openings on the MVRVS make me uneasy. I like the feeling of watching the north from the security of the height. The construction of the MVRVS is solid, and I am sure it will stand hundreds of years; but I don’t trust the north people. They certainly don’t trust us either. Anyway, we are mostly at peace now, and trade flows both ways. Perhaps one day we could become true friends and the MVRVS and VALLVM would be obsolete. What a crazy idea! Not in 1900 years!

A War Game

A rite of passage at school I remember, even 45 years after, was graduating from writing with a pencil to ink. Writing with a pencil meant you could erase and fix your mistakes. Ink meant that what was written was permanent.

Erasers were sold for both, but in my experience, only the pencil part worked well. The ink part (blue) made a mess or broke the paper.

It wasn’t until we mastered our (cursive) writing that graduation happened. I remember vividly practicing each letter in the alphabet until I could neatly write “a”, “b”, “c”, etc. and I could join them to make words.

And I also remember when my teacher told me “You can use your pen now!”. I was proud of the achievement. Pens became an essential part of my early education with the perennial and distinct blue stains on my fingers. And I’ve never lost love for fountain pens since then. I still use them to this day.

There were various types of ink. Blue was the mandatory color. For some reason, we were not allowed to use black ink until many years later when I had calligraphy classes. And we’d only use it for the gothic script. Not sure why.

But blue ink came in two types “permanent” and “erasable”. The “permanent” was darker blue and the normal rubber erasers had a very hard time with that. The “erasable” which was much lighter, was easier.

Sometime in middle school chemical erasers were introduced which were a small miracle. These were pens with a white tip embedded in a chemical that would make ink disappear. That made my life easier, and maybe a little bit more reckless as now my writing had a Plan B if I messed up.

And that gave me an idea to create a “war game” that became quite popular at my school. The idea was very simple:

  1. Take a piece of white paper and divide it in 2 areas
  2. Draw guns, bases, trenches, tanks and soldiers
  3. Then each player would surround their pieces with “mines” and “defenses” which were drawn with the chemical eraser.
  4. Take turns to draw (with ink) “attacks” from one side to another. If the ink hit a “mine” it would be neutralized.

It was fun. I loved drawing maps so I got creative with rivers, mountains, sandbags, and many more features. There was probably equal joy in drawing as in playing. You could cheat of course, as in most games, but there was no fun in doing it and it was easy to figure out who did it. I quickly avoided repeated offenders (who I can’t even remember).

The Brick

There are lot of trails where I live. You can leave civilization for a few minutes by just entering some of these into the woods. I have self-appointed myself “Protector of the Trails”. I carry a bag where I put all sorts of things that don’t belong there: plastic bottles, cans, plastic pieces. Thankfully, there are not many.

I find it easy to let my mind wander off climbing through these paths with Kate. Listening to the tiny drops falling from branches. Seeing specks of dust floating and forming rays through old stumps, and new trees growing on them when the sun shines.

I have come to recognize the shapes of the roots, the marks on the boulders, the pebbles around the tiny streams that change over the seasons.

One of those pebbles in a nice corner of my favorite trail was oddly shaped. It was barely surfacing over the dirt, half hidden behind the rotting leaves of the fall.

Every day I would walk past it, and every day I heard it telling me to set it free. I scrapped a little bit on the corner. It was lighter colored than anything surrounding it. This morning, my son came along, and we walked again past it. I picked up a twig and slowly removed the muddy contours, revealing a shape that is infrequent in nature. A perfect square. Its corner to be precise, although the vertice was long gone.

Slowly, the pebble gave away its secrets. And another shape emerged. An unmistakeable “R” next to a “B”. I removed all the dirt and mud on half of the perimeter of the pebble. And all from the top. The pebble was a brick.

Born in the XIX century in Scotland it turns out. “PATENT R.BROWN & SON PAISLEY”. Its journey from Paisley, Scotland to Redmond, WA will remain a secret forever. Did it arrive in a train? on a boat? was it destined to some other place? Was it part of a building? Throughout its existence it must have witnessed hopes, sadness, joy, celebrations, ambitions, progress, decadence and oblivion. Until it encountered us. And now with this post it enters the virtual and the digital. Transcending its ancestral earthly existence and becoming immortal.

I Believe

I was inspired by this post that Manu Kumar wrote. Manu is an entrepreneur and an investor. One of the first investors in our company, Auth0. I admire his integrity, passion, and dedication. And just his extraordinary human qualities.

I could have written the exact same thing, so I took the liberty to copy and edit the most significant parts and added some personal context to also make it clear what I believe in. I have left in highlighted italics all the parts that I got from Manu’s original text.

I come from a family of immigrants, I’m a mix of many peoples: Mediterranean, Central European, and Native-American. I am an immigrant myself, a US citizen, a founder, and a builder. I came to the United States because I believe in the institutions and the principles this country was founded on. While an imperfect implementation, I see the United States’ core values of freedom, justice, courage, equality, and pursuit of your dreams as some of the most powerful forces for human advancement.

These last four years, our elected leaders have not lived up to these values. They have not moved the country forward, but thankfully, our democracy allows them to be replaced and allows for renewal. The wisdom of these founding principles protects us from mistakes like this administration. Four years is a very short time in the life of a nation, although it might seem a very long time in our own lives.

In this context, here’s what I believe in:

  • I believe in facts, in Science, and Scientists, and not in politicians who make up and spread lies and misinformation.
  • I believe in Global Warming and that human actions are destroying the delicate balance of our planet. If you haven’t already, please watch David Attenborough’s documentary on Netflix: A Life on our Planet
  • I believe in using renewable energy sources and eliminating fossil fuels — it is possible.
  • I believe in having healthcare for everyone — because as COVID-19 has shown in a way like we’ve never experienced before, that we’re all connected.
  • I believe that women should have equal rights and most importantly have the right to make their own decisions about their own bodies.
  • I believe that love is equal and any adult should have the right to marry whoever they want, and be afforded the same protections, benefits, and social contracts.
  • I believe that Black Lives Matter — and that the law enforcement system in the US has a clear and demonstrated issue of different treatment based on the color of your skin.
  • I believe that no civil society needs to have guns, and especially not assault weapons. And if we did that, then our local law enforcement would not need to be equipped as if they are going to war with a nation-state on every call. And if we did that my kids wouldn’t be practicing “Code Red” drills on how to hide quietly in their school closet.
  • I believe that diversity leads to creativity and I support and encourage people of all races, all genders, all ages, all origins, all cultures, all sexual orientations to coexist and not only tolerate each other, but learn from each other and thrive together.
  • I believe that the rule of law has to apply equally to everyone, from the person on a street to the President of the United States.
  • I believe in free speech, facts, and truth.
  • I believe that TV media and social media have broken business models that lead to the propagation of biased and misleading information in self-reinforcing echo chambers. If you haven’t already please watch The Social Dilemma, also available on Netflix.
  • I believe that it is important for us to realize that at the core of it all, most humans want the same things. So we need to live and let live, and as Sting said “We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.”
  • I believe that access to education is one of the most powerful methods to unleash human potential. And that education should be a right afforded to everyone.
  • I believe that anyone aligned with the nation’s values should be welcome.
  • I believe in the deep power of human potential regardless of disabilities, mental or physical. And that is it our responsibility and duty to find ways to realize that potential and improve our communities.
  • I believe silence makes you complicit.
  • I believe we can fix things. We can learn from mistakes and that technology, a uniquely human capability, plays an important role. 
  • I believe our country has risen to the occasion and has worked in unity before when confronted with big challenges. And prevailed.

I know my superpower. My superpower is to create something from nothing. To take an idea, to bring people and resources to it, and make it grow. And I believe that a startup is the most efficient agent of change. I believe that businesses’ success should be measured in their financial outcomes and their social responsibility actions simultaneously. And that businesses with outstanding economic success without social impact, are not truly successful.

Our elected leaders and representatives should be held accountable and measured to what we aspire to be. To be the “best of us.” They should lead by example. They will be human, and imperfect, but they should strive to improve themselves towards the ideals that as a country we set for ourselves. The ideals that resonate with us as American citizens.

We don’t aspire to be racists, misogynists, narcissists, liars, careless, irresponsibles, and incompetents. We need leaders that represent the opposite. That will work for an equal, inclusive, empathetic, rational, accountable, and humane society.

I earned my right to vote in this country the hard way—it took me years to earn that right. I am not a Democrat, and I am not a Republican. I like to see myself as fiercely independent. I am an American. 

We take the right to vote for granted. It is a very hard-earned right. It took us centuries of struggle to get it. It took generations and lives. Many on the surface of the earth still don’t enjoy the right. Use it!


Navem habemus

After 2 years and 2 months, I finished our boat. It’s been a long, hard and very rewarding experience. It is a good feeling to “paddle your own boat”.

First, it looks great. And it is not just me saying that. A few people said to me “nice boat!”. One asked where I’ve got it from. I know it is not perfect and has some areas I could have done better, but this is my first one, and I rather have a good boat I use, than a perfect one the I never row. I will use all the learnings and experience, if I decide to build another one some day. If I do so (not anytime soon), it will likely have a sail.

In addition to looking good, it actually handles really nicely on the water. In the calm waters of the Lake I took it to, it is a real pleasure to paddle on it. It is also very comfortable and spacious.

I’ve taken it through some of the same routes I did more than two years ago with my previous (stolen) boat. I’m so fortunate to be able to do so. It is so peaceful, full of life, and incredibly beautiful. And even though it is tiring to paddle, it fills your soul with new energy.

Pictures are worth thousands words, so here it is:

Salve mundi!

Latin was a mysterious language, even though my mother language derives from it. It has a reputation for being hard, and well…dead.

But it turns out the language is very much alive. Hiding perhaps, but very much alive in plain sight. 60% of words in English are derived (or exactly the same) as in Latin. Here’re a few examples: dental, agriculture, nautical, puerile, insatiable, amicable, affiliation, and thousands more.

As we entered the COVID-19 dominated world, I was committed to come out of it better. And one of the things I started learning is Latin.

I started with DuoLingo (which has a beta version of the course) and I’ve kept the discipline of doing a few lessons every day for now 80 days non-stop!

I started with some fear, and low expectations, but over the last weeks I have loved it. I actually loved it so much that I have bough Wheelock’s Latin (7th Edition) and the corresponding workbook.

DuoLingo was very good to get me started, but Wheelock’s book is more comprehensive and formal, with lots of information, phrases and practice.

It is a true wonderful feeling to read the words on a paragraph in a new language and make sense of it. It is as if an entire new brain popped inside you.

After weeks of practice, I was able to read this paragraph. My first full one in Latin:

Maecēnās et Vergilius mē hodiē vocant. Quid cōgitāre dēbeō? Quid dēbeō respondēre? Sī errō, mē saepe monent et culpant; sī nōn errō, mē laudant. Quid hodiē cōgitāre dēbeō?

The fragment is from Roman poet Horace. Also from him, was my second paragraph:

Agricola et vītam et fortūnam nautae saepe laudat; nauta magnam fortūnam et vītam poētae saepe laudat; et poēta vītam et agrōs agricolae laudat. Sine philosophiā avārī virī dē pecūniā semper cōgitant: multam pecūniam habent, sed pecūnia multa virum avārum nōn satiat.

I came to appreciate the compactness and logic of the language, and interestingly enough, I learnt even more about English and Spanish.

When you arise in the morning…

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”

Those words were written by the most powerful man on earth about 2000 years ago. He was the absolute leader of the most powerful empire then, ruling over a lot of the known world. He commanded with absolute control one of the most efficient and ruthless armies humanity organized across many peoples and lands.

Although he could have anything he wanted, and he could do whatever he wanted, and had all the money in the world; it was not Power, Riches, or Control that he was appreciative of as he woke up. It was to be alive, to think, to enjoy and love.

I don’t have his power and influence (by a great length), but as I’ve just turned 50, I have come to appreciate the same things: to be alive, to think, love and enjoy. I have lived a very good life for which I am grateful. I love and am loved. I feel alive, and I can also enjoy many things.

And, because no one knows how much they have left on this tiny pebble floating on the Universe, I will live my life as the precious thing it is. Each day, as if it was the last, and each day better than the previous one.

Thanks to my wife, my sons, my parents, grandparents, my sister, my adopted parents and brothers and sisters, and my family. Thanks to my friends, teachers, coaches, and mentors, to my colleagues, clients, and competitors, who have all collectively made these first half of the century worth living and memorable.

And onwards to a better, exciting, and meaningful time to come. No matter how long it is.

An encounter with my 25 years younger self

I recently found a stack of Floppy disks while cleaning up my home office. I was curious about their contents, but I didn’t have a way of reading them anymore. No computer at home had the required drive to read them anymore.


I left them alone for a few months and then curiosity picked up again, so I did a quick search on Amazon, for 3.5″ Floppy disk drives and to my surprise, I found one that came with a USB connection, making it readable on any modern computer.

A few days later, I’ve received the SMS notification that it had been delivered. I admit I was excited!

Despite my enthusiasm, I prepared for the fact that all information stored in the diskettes would be unreadable. As a practicing stoic, premeditatio malorum helps set expectations and live a better life.

The process was seamless. Plugged it in, inserted the unassuming diskette and heard the long-forgotten sound of the drive reading (or attempting to read) the disk. A few (long) seconds later, and when my hopes were low, I saw a list of files coming up on my Mac Finder! A bunch of bitmap files and two MS Word documents.

I decided it would be better to copy all the files to my local drive to speed up things. A little while later, I had all files copied, and then I opened the first BMP file to find this:


If you noticed, the picture is tilted because this was from before digital photography became mainstream. It is actually a scan of an actual photo.

It took me just an instant to recognize it. My two hands digging into an Abbott Laboratories CCX biochemistry autoanalyzer. I am wearing my old then most favorite watch.

According to the file metadata, the file was originally created on Sunday, March 24th, 1996 at 7:49 PM.

My best friend Rudy and I were working on what turned out to be an extremely successful project. Probably one of the most fulfilling projects in my professional life.

We essentially built a hardware add-on for the analyzer, which automated a bunch of processes, saving hours of work.

The system had 2 components:

  1. A PC program (written in Clipper and C)
  2. A board based on the Motorola 68HC11 processor that plugged into the analyzer’s CPU and performed additional functions (including reading barcodes, connecting to the analyzer keyboard, touchscreen, and robotics), all written in assembler.

I found this header file of the Clipper program:

* CCx data manager system.
* By: K&W Software Resources.
* August 1994.
* The second great project of K&W SR.

* By: Eugen & Rudi.
* Dedicado a nuestras pacientes novias, que han preparado toneladas de
* panqueques y miles de litros de ta y kilolitros de cafe au lait para
* que este proyecto funcione.
* (Nota: nuestro anterior proyecto tambi‚n fue financiado gastron¢micamente
* por ellas. Gracias con retroactivo).
* Julio de 1994
* Octubre de 1995. Adicion de la funcion de HOST QUERY con el HQX.
* Dedicado a Mad*** & Mar***.
* Que con su infinita paciencia y apoyo hicieron que este proyecto
* llegara a buen termino.

“K&W” was the name of our company (our 2nd names in German). And a dedication to our then girlfriends: Mad*** & Mar***. Turns out they are both our wives today :-).

K&W did not survive as an entity, but my friendship with Rudy did. And when he married my sister Mar*** (yes, Mar*** in the header is my sister), we became family. And I’m grateful that he not only is still my friend, but he became my brother.

Both our wives supported us back then and continued to do so over the last 25 years. Through many ups and downs.

The two MS Word documents were manuals. One for the hardware installation, the other was the listing of the uController code. And there were also funny sections I’ve completely forgotten about:


“kowaschjkii” was our internal name of our office. KEF is my initials in German. RWR are Rudy’s initials in German, because German is kühl.

Even more impressive to me was finding the source code for a very simple “database” module I wrote for memory-constrained systems. I copy-pasted the entire code into my Arduino IDE, and after very few adjustments compile it and run it. :boom:

I guess we develop unique traits as software developers. I recognize my C code writing “prose”. The naming of variables, the comments, the error handling, the pragmatism in the design (there’re no horrible shortcuts, but I’ve mixed C++ and C liberally without being a purist on anyone).

Programming changed my life for the better. And like 25 years ago I still enjoy the practice, and I still feel the thrill of a program that works, and the challenge of finding the reasons why it doesn’t. Software is the ultimate puzzle.