19 December 2004

I have a dream...

One of my favorite pastimes is ice skating. This evening, I was thinking that I should skate in as many cities as possible. So far the list is:
  • Boston, MA
  • Cupertino, CA
  • New Haven, CT
  • San Jose, CA

I was thinking of trying Rockefeller Center in New York City next. Judging by the crowds I saw today, I should go early in the morning on a weekday for maximum enjoyment.

My ultimate dream is to skate on the frozen-over Netherland canals. Unfortunately, the last freezing over was in 1997. But when it does happen, you can skate for kilometers on end. For more information about ice skating in the Netherlands, check out these links from Travel Intelligence Co. and the Holland Ring.

10 December 2004

News flash!

David Gross, David Politzer, and Frank Wilczek were formally awarded their Nobel Prizes in physics this week.

The Nobel prize website has links to their lectures. I haven't had time to watch them yet, but I'll report back when I do. There are videos of David Gross's and Frank Wilczek's talks. David Politzer (apparently a recluse) has chosen not to have the video of his lecture available to the public, but the title of his talk is provocative: "The Dilemma of Attribution." Earlier this year, in a bizarre turn of events, Politzer chose not to attend his own press conference for the Nobel Prize. I learned from a former collaborater of Politzer that the man has only published two papers in the last decade. Strange.

On a humorous note, check out R. Shankar's physics standup comedy. Some highlights:

- "At that rate, Bill Gates could buy 450 pounds of Evander Holyfield's ear."
- "Yo mama's so massive I could use her as an ultraviolet cutoff."
- The origin of Puff Daddy's rap moves
- The Shankar duality between W theory and M theory

Movie review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

First, the Netflix summary:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Jim Carrey stars as Joel in this offbeat romantic comedy about a guy who opts for a procedure in which memories of his girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), are erased after he discovers she's opted for the surgery, too. But as his doctor (Tom Wilkinson) begins to wipe out traces of Clementine, Joel decides he doesn't want to lose what's left of their relationship, so he squirrels away the memories he wants to keep somewhere else in his brain.

The film's title is taken from a quote by Alexander Pope:
How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.
This movie is founded on an intriguing premise -- what if you could erase your most disturbing, painful memories? [Ironically, I was once in a research group meeting where a professor said he wished he could erase the memories he had of his mother. I responded that you can't selectively delete memories. As a counterpoint, I pointed out that he wouldn't want to lose the memories of his two-year old daughter.] Returning to the subject at hand, the movie seems to say that even if one could selectively erase memories, one could not really escape life's problems. Joel and Clementine are an unhappy couple. Their relationship is hanging by shreds. They have their memories of each other blanked. Yet the next day, they end up meeting and hooking up -- purely by chance. Or is it really chance? We're attracted to certain people for certain reasons and cleaning the slate does not change our predispositions. I'm certainly not an advocate of this extreme form of therapy. Painful memories teach good lessons (most of the time). As some famous philospher said, you can't know happiness without sadness.

Stylistically, the movie has many flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness moments, from Joel's point of view. The nonlinearity of time makes for an entertaining mind trip (though not as crazy as Memento). Also, there is some weirdness -- technicians running around in their underwear while erasing a man's memory.

Overall, a very unique and fun movie. Thumbs up.

08 December 2004


According to the New York Times, corporate America doesn't know how to write.

I'm not sure how much poor writing skills plague science, but my master's thesis advisor used to repeatedly praise my writing. I don't believe my words are particularly incisive or eloquent, so if my writing is truly the gold standard, I don't really want to see bad scientific prose. Fortunately, I've been lucky to work with students and researchers who are good writers, so I haven't had to face the music yet.

What does it take to be a good writer? From my experience, the first thing is to "omit needless words!" as Strunk exclaims in his famous manual on style. Another piece of advice is not to be sloppy. Don't drop punctuation or capitalize words that are not supposed to be capitalized. Third, use your common sense. Once you know the basic rules of grammar and sentence structure, you will come across situations where the punctuation may be ambiguous. For example, a common problem is whether to put a comma after/before a clause. The best way to decide is to read the sentence out loud and only insert a comma if there is a pause in the speech. Finally, make sure there is a logical flow to the prose. There's nothing worse than a paper that reads like bullet points.

After that, writing is very audience dependent. I avoid using "big words" in scientific writing because the reader is likely to be a foreigner. Also, prose that is quite passable among scientists often looks sophomoric to sophisticated humanities professionals (at least in my experience.) Of course that doesn't mean that people in the humanities always write better, but on the average, humanities graduate students are much better writers. Scientists only do technical writing for the most part which is formulaic and restrictive. For instance, I can't use "big words" in scientific writing because it would be difficult for a non-native reader to understand.

The majority of my recent writing has been scientific with the benefit that my writing has become more clear and logical. Unfortunately, I feel that I'm losing my vocabulary and literary eloquence compared to my high school days. I suppose I should try my hand at writing some short stories or beautific descriptions in my blog entries. And take some time out of my day to read classy literature. It's like watching British movies and shortly afterwards realizing that your brain is thinking in a British accent.

07 December 2004

What number are you?

I found a survey from Ms. Allyism's blog. Here's my result. I don't see what the number has to do with anything. I suppose it's just a label for a category.

You Are the Reformer


You're a responsible person - with a clear sense of right and wrong.

High standards are important to you, and you do everything to meet them.

You are your own worst critic, feeling ashamed if you're not perfect.

You have the highest integrity, and people expect you to be fair.

Gee, the description makes me sound like this guy.

06 December 2004

String theory, its enthusiasts and its critics

String theory is the idea that the world, at its smallest scale, consists of eleven dimensional strings. The theory is commonly thought to be one of the best approaches to finding a "theory of everything" -- a single theory to describe all the known forces of nature (gravitational, strong, weak, electromagnetic interactions). I'm still waiting until I learn more before I decide what I think. However, it is safe to say that string theory is an incredibly controversial field in physics. Most people either love or hate it. The critics have good reason to complain. Not only is there no experimental evidence for string theory, there are very few plausible ways to test it. Physicists have been blessed with a remarkable theoretical understanding of their science, but this progress has always been motivated by experiments. String theory is stretching that boundary by propelling itself forward not by experimental results but by theoretical intuition. This sort of guesswork has sometimes been incredibly successful, but I have to agree with the critics -- twenty years is a long time to spend on a theory with no experimental evidence. I guess my opinion is kind of negative so far, but I haven't studied string theory, so that's why I'm still holding out.

If you have the time and interest, take a look at two recent articles in the New York Times and Science Magazine (you need a subscription).

05 December 2004

Movie review: "His Secret Life"

My Italian friend has been suggesting (surprise) Italian movies. I've been getting them from Netflix for him and also for myself since I'm curious about foreign movies.

Here's the summary of the latest movie (taken from Netflix):

His Secret Life (2001)

While recovering from the shock of her husband's death, an Italian woman (Margherita Buy) discovers that her husband had had a secret lover for the last 7 years. But she's even more surprised to discover that he and his lover (Stefano Accorsi) were part of an extended "family" of gays, transgenders and other social outcasts … a family she finds herself drifting toward as she overcomes the emotions of her husband's passing.

As you can tell from the summary, this is sure one strange movie, but I think it came off as believable. I personally have never been part of a gay community, so I can't judge if the movie did a good portrayal of the "gay family" in the movie. The Italian wife was very sweet and likable. It was an interesting idea to have a wife and her husband's lover bond over their shared memories of the man they loved. All in all, I liked the movie and think it was worth watching.

Rhapsody delivers Christmas cheer

I got a complaint that my blog was too "nerdy." So today's topic is internet music.

I have a great service called Rhapsody. For a small monthly fee, it delivers on-demand streaming music over the internet. You can choose from over 50,000 albums. As someone who is always looking for new music, I like how you can browse top ten lists to see what other people are listening to. The catalog is well-organized so you can find artists that are similar to your favorite musicians. You can also create your own "radio station" by picking ten artists you like. Rhapsody will then randomly choose songs by these artists and similar musicians. Of course, the best part of using Rhapsody is trying out lots of different music without having to blindly buy CDs.

Personally, I think that music will eventually fall into this on-demand model. The concept of buying CDs is a bit outdated in the digital age.

Lately, I've been enjoying two Christmas albums suggested by the Rhapsody editors. They are "Merry Christmas" by Andy Williams and "Wishes You A Swinging Christmas" by Ella Fitzgerald.