30 November 2005

Rent movie soundtrack

I've been listening to the soundtrack for the movie Rent in the past few days.

Rent is actually an off-Broadway musical that was written ten years ago. Unfortunately, it came out around when I was merely a freshman in high school and couldn't appreciate it. I did remember singing the hit song "Seasons of Love" in my high school choir and rather enjoying the music. I still haven't seen the stage production. I finally saw the movie version (which is as good as the musical according to fans) less than a week ago.

Rent is very popular among people my age +/- 10 years. It resonates with me for several reasons. It's a musical about loneliness and friendship, about feeling misunderstood and underappreciated, about living in the moment, and about appreciating what we have.

I'll leave off this entry with a snippet of lyrics from the song "Life Support":
There's only us,
There's only this,
Forget regret,
Or life is yours to miss.
No other road,
No other way,
No day but today.

29 November 2005

Subscription TV

Sometimes TV shows that are popular with niche audiences get cancelled. For example, Firefly was cancelled after only one season, despite its rave reviews from the "nerd" crowd. TV networks seem to only care about quantity: the number of viewers. Could there be something in the quality of the audience, i.e. the level of a viewer's personal involvement in TV? Are a few million mildly interested watchers better than a hundred thousand fanatics?

Henry Jenkins discusses this idea in an article on Flow. He proposes that networks move to a subscription model where each viewer could pay $2 for an episode. Apparently, the BBC is already using such a model.

I see the TV subscription model as part of the popular movement where media is controlled by the payers/viewers rather than corporations. Blogs, online reviews, online auctions are all part of this trend.

28 November 2005


I recently heard about a new breed of mouse called "Rollermouse." It is well known that the conventional mouse gives the user pain after many hours of use, which may even lead to tendinitis or repetitive strain injury. But there are jobs where a mouse is required, for example, graphic CAD design.

Apparently, there are several inherent ergonomic design problems in the conventional mouse. First, the palm down facing desk position of the hand is unnatural. Second, when the user reaches out to his/her left/right to grasp the mouse, the arm is extended and strained. I'm not sure if the Rollermouse solves the first problem, but it addresses the second -- the mouse is right next to your thumb when you are typing on the keyboard. It's an interesting idea, good enough that PC World gave it an award for one of the top 100 PC products of 2005. I may give it the Rollermouse a try someday, particularly if its price drops.

Amazon Mechanical Turk

My sister sent me a link about "Mechanical Turk." The idea is that there are tasks that humans find very easy compared to computers, for instance, locating a person's mouth in a face. At the website, an experimenter (perhaps in artifical intelligence) can solicit human helpers who can do these kinds of tasks and thus teach a computer to do them on its own. The compensation is provided to the human helpers in Amazon.com credit. For more information, see the FAQ.

Favorite physics books

Out of the blue, I asked my friends for their favorite physics books.

Here are the results of the poll:
  • V. I. Arnold, Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics
  • Ralph Baierlein, Thermal Physics
  • Grigory I. Barenblatt, Scaling
  • John Cardy, Scaling and Renormalization in Statistical Physics
  • Viktor Dotsenko, An Introduction to the Theory of Spin Glasses and Neural Networks
  • Richard P. Feynman, Statistical Mechanics
  • Howard Georgi, Lie Algebras in Particle Physics
  • Nigel Goldenfeld, Lectures on Phase Transitions and the Renormalization Group (3)
  • David J. Griffiths, Introduction to Electrodynamics (2)
  • David J. Griffiths, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics
  • E. M. Lifshitz and L. D. Landau, Statistical Physics
  • E. M. Lifshitz and L. D. Landau, Theory of Elasticity
  • Richard D. Mattuck, A Guide to Feynman Diagrams in the Many-Body Problem
  • Gordon Raisbeck, Information Theory
  • Steven Weinberg, Gravitation and Cosmology
  • Carlo Vanderzande, Lattice Models of Polymers
  • Anthony Zee, Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell (3)

As you can probably tell, the majority of my friends are condensed matter physicists.

And here are my favorites:

  • Neil W. Ashcroft and N. David Mermin, Solid State Physics
  • Herbert B. Callen, Thermodynamics and an Introduction to Thermostatistics
  • David J. Griffiths, Introduction to Electrodynamics
  • Edward M. Purcell, Electricity and Magnetism

20 November 2005

Quote of the day from Firefly

The more I watch Firefly, the more I appreciate it. Too bad they cancelled it after one season! In the episode "The Message," there is a nice army-inspired quote:
"When you can't run anymore, you crawl... and when you can't do that... you find someone to carry you."

18 November 2005

My email management strategy

Here's how I manage my email.
  1. I try to keep fewer than 20 messages in my inbox. If I have more messages than that, it makes me worry. I feel responsible for those inbox messages.
  2. To whittle down the inbox, I do several things. First, if it's an email I can respond to in 5 minutes, I take care of it right away. Otherwise, I do one of three things: I delete it, file it in another folder, or forward the email to a different email address (more on that later).
  3. I set my email checking interval to once per hour, to minimize interruptions. This may not be an option for everyone.
  4. If you're a fast typist, you may want to consider a text-based email program like Pine. I use it because I can do everything from the keyboard and it loads faster than web-based programs like Webmail. Reading, deleting, forwarding, and filing emails is really fast via the keyboard -- avoid the mouse!
  5. I keep two email accounts. I have my work account and my Gmail account. All important work-related mail and personal correspondence goes through my work account. Things like ad flyers from electronics stores, news article links from my father, and word-a-day emails go to my Gmail account. Sometimes if there is a work account email that I need to think about but isn't very pressing, I forward that email to my Gmail account.
  6. Sometimes if there is an important issue that I need to think about later, I will carbon copy (cc) myself. For example, if I'm working on a project with my advisor and I write up an explanation of my work, I will cc myself on the message I send. I do this, because the sent box is not sufficient (see below).
  7. The blind carbon copy (bcc) option is useful if you don't want people to look at the email addresses of the other recipients. For example, a department administrator might email some students to tell them they are in danger of failing a course. It's not efficient to send that email one-by-one to each individual, but privacy is also important. Then bcc is the right choice.
  8. The sent box is basically useless. It's difficult to search and many of the emails are trivial one-liners. Also, your email system may periodically delete messages from the sent box since they eat up the most disk space. I never leave anything important in it. I only use the sent box as a backup in case I accidentally delete an email that I had wanted to save and there is a copy of the message in my sent box.
  9. If I'm writing to many people on a regular basis, I try to use an alias. What that means is that I can type a single word, say "dormfriends", in the to: field and the email program will automatically insert the addresses of my 20 dorm friends. If I'm writing to a large number of people for work related reasons (for instance, a seminar group), then I use a mailing list.
  10. If I were to invite friends to a big party, I would consider using a web-based service like Evite.
  11. I use my work email account for reminders. I use a free service at 101 Reminders. It's a web-based calendar that will email me reminders (for instance, "go to the gym at 7 am"). I can set options like email me once a week on the same day, on the same date each month, one day before the event, four days before the event, etc. It's very useful to use email reminders not just for events but also for pending actions (say a reminder to email your out-of-town friend three weeks from now to schedule a visit).
  12. I haven't tried this, but many people keep a collection of "boilerplate" emails for common responses. There is even software that will semi-automate this process for you.
  13. Finally, there are filters. I don't find that I need them, but when I become an "important" person, I'll probably use them.

13 November 2005

Life hacks: Shorthand, VI, Remind, RCS

A few more ideas I got from reading links off 43 Folders.
  • Shorthand systems - I'm not sure I want to use these particular shorthand systems; since I'm a physicist, it might be best to create my own shorthand. It would also be easier to remember a system of my own devising.
  • VI, the famous UNIX editor - see for example, VIM. The advantage of VI over Emacs is that it's supposedly faster and uses fewer multiple key combinations. You also get VI to recognize abbreviations.
  • Remind, a simple text-based calendar system for UNIX - see an article about it here.
  • RCS, the revision control system - It's simple software for managing multiple versions of a file. My master's thesis advisor used it for editing drafts of publications. For more information, see this page.

06 November 2005

The Accountability Method

A friend of mine suggested a very good idea. He said that if you're having trouble working, share your goals with a friend you trust and respect. The idea is:
  • at the beginning of the day, email the friend with your list of daily goals (I also add a little bit of commentary)
  • at the end of the day, email your friend back saying what you accomplished, didn't complete, and why
  • save your writeups in a text file and look over it each week to see what works and what doesn't (of course you can also adjust and experiment during the week)

A few additional comments. I usually stop writing up goals over the weekend, to give myself a break. I also schedule fun stuff into my day (like read a non-technical book or watch a hockey game).

05 November 2005

Publish or perish

If you don't have enough papers on your CV, maybe you can try using SCIGEN, a program written by three MIT computer science graduate students. It generates computer science research papers that are superficially plausible, but complete gibberish.

01 November 2005

Life hack with Gmail

Gmail is an excellent way to organize your email. I send all my non-urgent email there (like mailing lists from companies I buy products from, news article links, etc.) Then I check my Gmail account late at night when I can afford a distraction or two. And of course, you have lots of space on a Gmail account!

Here's a great tip my sister sent me about how to turn Gmail labels into folders.