20 Questions Tuesday: 268 - Iyaz Akhtar


This week is a treat.  I am going to ask one of the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts 20 questions.  Iyaz Akhtar is one of the hosts of Tech News Today on the TWiT network… He has his degree in law and has been know to actually read the EULA for tech products and services.  He actually reads the EULA?  Who the hell does that?  Anyway… he often takes the counterpoint of previous 20 questioneer, Tom Merritt. Often I cannot tell if he is just being a devils advocate, or if he is actually taking the side of the argument he is making. I believe he is able to do that so ably because he is/was a lawyer… we will get into that with some of the questions, but anyway, Iyaz is a genuine delight to hear and his opinion is almost always very well thought out and well informed. Very rarely does he get it wrong.  I cannot think of any specific instance where I felt he was wrong, but I am sure there have been some.  He is human and fallible and don’t let anyone tell you differently…

So without further ado, let’s get to the questions.

So I make maps for a living and have always been interested in the stories of place and space.  For example, I was born just outside of Oklahoma City, the fam moved to Montgomery, Alabama when I was three and moved up to just outside of Birmingham, Alabama when I was 5. I lived there until I went off to school in Kent, Ohio.  There I met my future wife and moved to Columbus, Ohio for grad school and moved just outside of Columbus proper last year.  Question 1:  What is your geographic story?

I was born in Brooklyn where my dad worked. My parents and the three kids lived in an apartment until the fourth child showed up. When my younger brother was born (and I was around three years old), we all moved to Queens where I stayed until I was about 18 years old. My mom still lives in Queens. After that, I headed to Boston where I attended Boston University. After I graduated, I stayed in Boston for a year with an honest-to-goodness job.

I decided to make my way back to Queens to figure out my next step. That brought me to Wallingford, Connecticut - a small town that was nearby my first law school, Quinnipiac University School of Law. I transferred out to Vermont Law School in my second year sending me to Randolph, Vermont. I lived there for about three years. An interest in tax law brought me to Manhattan, New York for even more schooling.

After that wound up, I headed upstate to a town called Croton on Hudson — a town so dead, that I wanted to leave. The house was sold and I was headed to Manhattan again except I got a job offer in Petaluma, California. A deal for a Manhattan property fell through which made it easier to take the gig in California. Now I’m in Petaluma and have been here since March 2011.

I’m sorry, I think I just read that you moved to Manhattan because of “an Interest in tax law.”  This is a pretty particular statement.  I would imagine that there are not terribly many people who have ever written, much less, said that statement.  I want to assure you that I am not casting stones here. My undergrad degree is in mathematics, with a focus on geometric topology, and my grad degree is focused on spatial analysis methods and analytical cartography, so I understand that different things interest different people.  Question 2: What interested you in tax law? Do you still harbor any of that interest still?

What interested me in tax law? I took an income tax course at Vermont Law School and I was hooked. People have the most creative arguments when it comes to money. I enjoyed reading all the arguments made over the years fighting taxation. I also took an estate and gift tax course while serving as a research assistant for one of my professors. That only strengthened my interest in tax law.

I wanted to be a tax law professional and the top place you could go for a Masters in Taxation is New York University’s School of Law. So, I worked really hard and managed to get into NYU’s program. Money is the biggest game in the world; the structures you can create to make your money work for you are fascinating to me.

However, I wound up in tech because the job market was a mess when I got out of school. The market was flooded with professionals who had been in the business for years seeking employment. Cost cutting methods meant experienced attorneys were vying for the same jobs as recent graduates.

I interviewed at a number of places while also applying for tech jobs. (I was a writer for a tech blog while in law school). I happened to get a tech job before getting a law job, so I wound up in that field. I don’t actively keep an eye out on tax law, but I do still find tax law very interesting.

I have never thought about looking at tax law from the perspective of how to avoid tax laws.  I imagine that can become rather interesting.  I have lost much of my interest in mathematics.  I still think I have the beginnings of a hypothesis for a different type of mathematics that would set the table to help clear up one of Russell’s paradoxes, but I really only understand that when I am drunk, so that is a hypothesis for another more drinky time.  

Here we are at the point that everyone has been waiting for, Question 3: Cake or Pie?  Which kind and specifically what kind?

I usually go with pie. My favorite is apple pie, but I like lots of different fillings. I feel like I’m going to sound like Bubba from Forrest Gump - I like pecan pie, cherry pie, even savory pies like chicken pot pie. When I moved to Petaluma, I was delighted to find that my place of work was within walking distance of the Petaluma Pie Company (yeah, too perfect, right?).

We live near a place call “Just Pies… “ I have recently discovered a gluten sensitivity… boo gluten sensitivity.  I too tend to lean towards pie, but I think that has to do with the fact that my mom baked and decorated cakes for a living… I am nothing if not oppositionally defiant concerning the fam of origin.  So much so, that sometimes I end up not doing things I should just because it is something my parents would do.  It is a classic “cutting your nose to spite your face” situation, but that is a story for a different time.

Question 4: So you grew up on the East Coast and moved recently to the West Coast, where do you feel most “at home?”  For example, I grew up in Alabama, but I feel most at home in Columbus, Ohio, and have even before my kids were born.

Interesting question. I usually feel most at home in a walkable city. So whether it’s New York, Boston, or San Francisco, they all kind of feel like home when I’m walking around. I’ve lived in a bunch of small towns and suburbs over the years and while I do enjoy most of them, I think I was made for a city with a mass transit system.

I don’t think geography makes me feel at home as much as having options to do things in a location. I guess having options puts me at ease. My least favorite place to live was Croton on Hudson in upstate New York. There were very few restaurants and maybe one or two that were any good. It seems like the town was built for people to live in, but not enjoy anything in that town. You’d have to drive twenty minutes to find something remotely interesting.

I’ve been fortunate to live in some small towns that have nice downtown areas like Wallingford, Connecticut and Petaluma, California. You’d have to drive to the downtown area, but then you could walk around for a couple of hours seeing things.

That sounds like a great living philosophy.  My fam has been lucky to date as to the neighborhoods we have lived in.  The first place my wife and I lived in was across the street from a Dairy Queen.  We could look out our front window and see what the special was.  To tell the truth it was both a good and a bad thing, but that proximity to hot eats and cool treats (Dairy Queen, we treat you right) can help one to shed the idea of Sweet Home Alabama.  Our previous house was also very walkable.  Now we live 2 blocks away from a thriving little town square with restaurants, places to eat, and eateries.

Question 5: So, what genre of food is your “go to” in your relatively walkable area?  For us, it is an English style pub around the corner (The Old Bag of Nails) that has great fish’n’chips and delightful shrimp as well as the beers. That being said, a few pizza places have opened recently that the kids are partial to.

I’ve been called a picky eater, but I do try to sample all kinds of foods. I think my “go to” food is American food - so burgers, sandwiches, that kind of thing. You can usually get them anywhere. As I’m also a beer fan, you can get that kind of food with a nice beer. I quite enjoy pizza — even a bad slice of pizza is usually a good bit of food.

Question 6:  So your self assessed pickiness with food, does that stem from predominantly flavor issues or is a texture issue?  For example, I love the flavor a banana gives you, however, the mushiness of it keeps me from eating it… similarly with avocado…

If I had to pick one, I think my pickiness comes from flavor issues. For the most part, I don’t like to be bored by my food. If you’re going to be ingesting something for your body to have fuel, it should taste good. I’ve been told I’ve got good sense of smell and that’s pretty important when it comes to tasting. Depending on the day, I try to keep an open mind when it comes to trying out new foods. I’d love to be surprised to find a new favorite.

Textures can bother me, too. Cottage cheese is a food that I can handle sometimes — other times, it just grosses me out thinking about it (like right now, ew).

I have never been much of a cottage cheese fan myself… it… looks squishy /shudder

Enough of this food talk.  Let’s get down to important business, let’s tech this up just a little bit because I really do enjoy the Tech News Today podcast.  Question 7: How long do you give Blackberry? It really has been one of the more spectacular falls from prominence in the tech age.  I am sure it has not hit rock bottom yet, but it seems to be picking up speed on its way down right now.

I figure the BlackBerry brand could go the way of the Polaroid brand. I doubt it will ever truly die as it still has a lot of value as a name. As for the company surviving, I believe its enterprise services and back end services will outlast the handset operations. I think BlackBerry as we know it will not exist in two years. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.


When RIM went dormant for a year and then re-branded themselves as the company Blackberry, the writing was on the wall.  I personally feel that it has only been a matter of time especially after the z-10 flopped. There was too much time between products and places found other options.  The office where I work is a perfect example. This was a blackberry shop for the longest time (I work in the government, it’s okay, we are here to help), but in RIM/Balckberry’s stagnation our department shifted to iPhones… a horrible solution, but a solution nonetheless.  

One of the things I enjoy in Tech News Today is how you and Tom are often on different sides of a story.  Question 8: How much of that difference of opinion is an actual difference of opinion and how much is manufactured to give the show a counter-point?  Do you play devil’s advocate to Tom and vice versa?    

Ah, a familiar question. First up, it should be known that Tom and I are friends and have known each other for a number of years before I wound up at TWiT. I have the utmost respect for him and his ideas. All that being said, we both like constructing and deconstructing arguments. I’d say most times what appears to be a disagreement is simply presenting a different viewpoint to the other person to test the validity of that argument. To put it more simply, sometimes you want to know if your idea is any good, so you bounce it off your pal. We just so happen to do it on the air and have some fun with it. We both play devil’s advocate from time to time to try to make sense of whatever is going on in tech.

I figured that both of you play devil’s advocate to each other, and I think it is very clear that the two of you are fairly good friends and at least happy co-workers.  I cannot imagine how boring a show would be everybody agreed with whoever spoke first.  Bunch of “Dittos” and “What he/she said.”  It would be fantastically horrible if all of you came out and just agreed with each other on camera for a show.  The show would be over in 20 minutes, and most of that time would be Jason dropping the segment title screens.  I think it is very clear that each host of Tech News Today brings a strong set of skills to the plate as well as a pretty well defined point of view.  It truly is a great show.


Question 9: Fill in the blanks:  I feel that I am mostly ______. Others feel I am mostly ______.



There is a bit of an inconsistency between your response and other people’s response.  “Nice” and “sarcastic” are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, but there is some separation between the two responses.  Question 10:  Why do you think there is such a discrepancy between your nice view of yourself and others’ sarcastic view of you?  Are people misconstruing your genuine concern and care for sarcasm?  

I think the discrepancy comes from a number of things like my awkwardness around people. Some of my closest friends have had trouble understanding when I’m being sarcastic or serious. From what I’ve gathered, it’s generally a tone problem. Then there’s the curious case of my face. I’m either not very good at emoting concern or if I am, it is incredibly similar to my annoyed face. Let’s just say I’d be a terrible actor. Combine awkwardness, tone issues, and facial arrangement and you get the nice/sarcastic combo.

It is helpful to recognize that within yourself. I have a trouble of often choosing funny over nice.  Wherein you are nice, which some misunderstand as being sarcastic, I am sarcastic at the expense of nice.  It is my cross to bear.  Heavy hangs the head with the crown and all that.

I have been trying to get the word “shiny” into the modern day colloquial language to mean “cool” or “awesome.”  Question 11: Do you have a word or phrase that you want to interject into modern culture?  If not, can you think of one?

I have a tendency to use the words “nifty” and “neat” both on IM and IRL. I doubt I’m trying to get others to use those words. This relates back to my mistaken sarcasm — most people don’t take either term sarcastically in my experience.

“Nifty” and “neat” are great words and should also be infused into the modern day lexicon.  Lexicon is also a word that should be used more often, because, as you well know, lexicons are nifty.  

So I noticed this morning I had to set 3 different alarms on my phone to wake me up.  These alarms span an hour of time, and sometimes I still have issues waking up with them.  When I was a grade schooler, I remember having the hardest time getting out of bed because I was a sleepy kid.  I also remember, vaguely,back when I was young, spry and in college, I would typically wake up when my radio alarm clock began the preliminary hum 3 seconds before the alarm went off.  Now, some of this difficulty with my waking has to do with the constant sleep dept I am in due to my schedule (kids, job, school…. simultaneously) but I think some of this has to do with just being more middle aged.  Question 12: So, how has your waking routine changed over the years?  or has it?

When I was a kid, I guess I’d pop out of bed like a normal child. Once I became a teenager, I just wanted to sleep in all the time. I eventually put my alarm clock across far away from my bed so I’d have to get up and walk to it. Eventually, I could kind of do that routine while half-asleep. I learned to hate that Sony Dream Machine clock radio alarm buzzer. I can hear it right now in my head - it makes me cringe. I eventually made the switch to waking up to music because I despised that alarm sound. However, that didn’t work so well because sometimes the music that would be playing on the radio would seep into my dream and not wake me up.

I also took great advantage of the snooze button through high school and college. I’d set my alarm for about 30 minutes before I had to really get up so I could hit the snooze button a couple of times before getting out of bed.

Eventually, I realized that the extra sleep wasn’t worth it and started putting my alarm for a time I really should get out of bed. Nowadays, I avoid hitting the snooze button and turn off the alarm at 6:30AM. It’s a slightly risky endeavor — the alarm is off, so if I somehow doze off again, there will be no alarm to wake me up. However, that hasn’t been too much of an issue.

When it comes to weekends, I usually get up pretty early (around 7:30AM). I don’t like wasting the day asleep when I can be doing things.

I am not a morning person, but these darn kids make me get up early all the time.  Darn kids.

This being Question 13 and all, it is time to get superstitiony.  So, when I was in high school I had a ritual to get ready for a soccer game… a sequence of getting dressed that got me ready to play the game.  Some considered it a superstition or belief in luck, but it was more of a process to get my mind in the right place for the game.  More of a ritual than a superstition.  Question 13: Do you have any superstitions or rituals?  

I don’t think I’m superstitious as I will walk under a ladder without fear. I don’t know if I have rituals as much as I have routines like my pre-workout routine. Before pretty much any workout, I’ll look at motivational fitness quotes and pics then play a playlist of music that gets me fired up to beat my body up.

For general everyday stuff, I end up using routines to make up for my lousy memory. I was always amazed in movies when people in court scenes would say “Where you the night of October 18th, 2011?” I have trouble remembering what I did within the course of a day let alone remember years ago. However, my routines let me figure out what I’d likely be doing at that time. (And to answer that question - On October 18th, 2011, I was probably scouring the news for Tech News Today in my home office before heading to the studio).

I have never understood how people on the stand could remember where they were on a specific date.  The only thing that I can think of that would trigger the memories is that something odd occurred that created a mental timestamp. I know there have been times that I have made a mental note to remember something odd for later.  That way when the news crews came to me I would be able to expound upon their request with a surprising amount of information.  That has not happened…. yet.  Let’s just put it this way, I am currently putting this memory in the vault, for I am sure you are about to do something newsworthy that will involve me taking the stand.  Who am I kidding?  I will have a tough time remembering my name tomorrow.

Question 14: Is there a specific piece of technology that you would like to see made?  Is there a magic technology that you would like to see in reality (even something that already exists but is not mass produced or reasonably purchasable)? Holographic projection, reasonable and exact Virtual Reality stuff, jet-packs, self-driving cars, teleportation, personal robots etc…

I’d like for wireless power be a reality. I know we have these wireless power mats that you can place your device on, but they require close proximity. It’d be nice to not have to plug in all the time. My gadgets die far too frequently.

I had completely forgotten about the mere idea of wireless power.  That truly could revolutionize how objects could be used.  That would be really pretty awesome.  I personally want to have ubiquitous and efficient alternative forms of power.  Reliance on fossil fuels is something that we, as a planet, need to reduce.  Crap, I am soapboxing.  What I meant to say is I like 3-D printers and rapid prototyping.

I can imagine that the constant amount of research and the aggressive production schedule associated with a daily  technology news program is a difficult schedule to juggle.  You enjoy exercising and have a family. Question 15: How do you try to keep your work/life balance in an acceptable ratio?  I am asking for a friend who has 2 kids, a full-time job, is in school full-time and whose wife travels for her work and feel his work/life ratio is all over the place.  Are you content with your work/life ratio?

Keeping my work/life balance in an acceptable ratio requires a bit of discipline and practice. I’ve never really considered myself a morning person, but when I wake up, I’ve got to get right to work researching stories for “Tech News Today.” I try to get eight hours of quality sleep so I can wake up and go full tilt.

When I’m not at work, I read a bit of tech news. I’ve kept up on gadgets and tech since I used to read magazines like EGM or Nintendo Power (so since I was about ten years old). At times, I’ll try to force myself to draw a line and do things that aren’t tech-related. The nature of my work affords me the opportunity to develop good habits or be super-lazy if I want.

Am I content with my work/life ratio? Content is such a great word. I’m a tinkerer — I’ll probably keep tinkering with ratios like that forever.

It really is a hard thing to get right and super-easy to get wrong and very easy to get off-balance after having been balanced for a good while.  It really is a delicate balance.  I am a bit out of whack currently, but trying to get that balance back… Hopefully that can happen fairly soon, because being out of balance is difficult, especially when one has the childrens.


Question 16: So, is there a question that I have not asked you that you think I should, or that you are surprised I have not asked?

Hm. You haven’t asked me about what tech I use every day.

Okay, I’ll bite, Question 16A: What tech do you use everyday, and do you find any one piece of tech indispensable in your daily life?

My iPad (fourth generation) has become a device that is almost always on me. I use it to prep for shows. At times, I use it to take a look at my rundown for “Know How…” I end up watching my workout videos on it since it’s portable. Plus, since it’s on the Verizon LTE network, it frequently accompanies me when I’m on the road. It has a super-low cost data plan and it’s also a hotspot. I’m a big fan. My laptop and desktop get used during the workweek, but sometimes I won’t touch either on the weekend because of the iPad.

I regularly use an Ooma, a VOIP box, that lets me make phone calls over the Internet for a really low rate. That’s always connected to my home network and I find myself on the phone far too often. I’m still not a cell phone fan, though.

There’s also my Pogoplug, which gives me access to my 3TB of media files anywhere. I’ve got plenty of movies on there, so if Netflix is down, I can watch one of those movies. My workout vids are also on there, so I do end up using the Pogoplug app a lot.

For my home theater, I end up using my Media Center PC and Apple TV quite regularly. My video files are set in a redundant way so if either the Media Center or Apple TV fails, I can watch content on the other machine while fixing the other. The PS3 is used as the ultimate backstop.

At one time in my life I was technologically saavy… not so much anymore.  That is why I watch TWiT.

Question 17: So, since you are on a few podcasts, do you listen to podcasts, and if so, what podcasts do you listen to?

I used to listen to lots of podcasts back when I had a long commute (pretty much anything from TWiT and CNET). The HTGuys’ “HDTV & Home Theater Podcast” and “Buzz Out Loud” were two of my favorite podcasts to listen to on my old commute. These days, my commute is a whopping one mile drive, so I don’t listen to shows like I used to.

However, I do wind up watching a whole lot of podcasts when I’m home. I regularly watch “All About Android,” “90 Seconds on the Verge,” “Fw: Thinking,” and “Pro Wrestling Report.” I can’t help but watch some shows when I’m in the studio. I’ve watched plenty of “iPad Today” and “Social Hour” episodes, but I don’t get to see the show like you guys do. I get to see the back of the hosts’ heads while I listen to the show. That’s an oddball thing.

That does sound odd… I imagine it is a very different vantage point.  It sounds a bit discombobulating… I don’t get to use that word very often.

The tables are turning, so Question 18: What questions would you like to ask me?

Have you ever sat down and read a EULA or a wireless carrier contract?

I have read one.  I read the first EULA associated with World of Warcraft. I read the whole thing, although I am certain that the last half of the doc I was skimming more than reading and I would have failed any test associated with the content of what I was reading.  I was not able to turn on the switch in my brain that would make it comprehensible, so that really was the first/last/only EULA I have ever read.

Question 19:  What are you taking from these 20 questions that you did not bring in with you?

I haven’t really given it much thought as to what kind of place I like to live in until these questions - and it turned out to be a walkable town or city. I hadn’t bothered to find a common thread to all of the places I enjoyed living until you asked.

It is always interesting to see when threads weave together into something recognizable. In doing all of these 20 Questions interviews that I have done through the years, I often see people recognize patterns that they did not see before.

and the final question… Question 20:  What’s Next?  You can be as short-term or as long-term as you want, you can be as concrete or as vague as you want.

What’s next? Around the house, I’ll probably keep going after my garage so I can fit a car in there. As a content producer, I’d like to create some more shows and finish up a documentary I’ve been working on for a while. I’ve been tinkering with the idea of recording some more music (I haven’t done that in a long time). I like to make creative works, so I think that’s really what’s next for me in my immediate future. After that, who knows?

That was delightful.  Everyone should follow Iyaz on twitter, and listen to his podcasts! Know How, Tech News Today, Podcast without Pretense, and Two and a Half Geeks.

To recap:

I really enjoyed this conversation with Iyaz

Hawai’i is awesome

I have tons of homework to do

And a pic to finish for Iyaz

I offered him a pic since I draw things as a way of thanks

He asked for something from “The Preacher”

I chose Saint of Killers

Should have done this while I am watching presentations/lectures

Presentations and lectures about Bottom-Up Information Architecture

We are focusing on faceted categorization schemes tonight

Faceted like a diamond, Baby!

I think I will have another 20 Questions interview ready for next week as well

Have a great weekend everyone