31 January 2006

Hello Garden!

Last night, I went to Madison Square Garden for the first time.

Here's a shot of the flashly sign outside:

I went to see the New York Rangers (blue/red) play against their rival, the Phildelphia Flyers (white/orange).

I paid for a really expensive seat, but it was worth it. I got close up views of non-stop hockey action. Here are some shots of the Rangers during their warmup:

Here's the scenic view from seats higher up:

Using my Powershot S400, I managed to snap this shot of the puck being dropped at a faceoff. That Flyer on the left side of the faceoff circle is either incredibly fast or jumped the whistle.

Alas, the Rangers lost 3-2 in overtime after leading by 2-0. At least Jaromir Jagr scored a goal.

Here I am in front of the net after the end of the game.

For the record, I think Madison Square Garden is a great arena. There weren't too many advertisements or concession stands. I felt like the focus was on the event and not on selling things.

Keeping a log of software commands

In scientific labs, it is well known that you keep a lab notebook detailing the steps and procedures you use to obtain results.

I found that this is also a good idea when you use many different software packages. For instance, I often change the appearance of MATLAB plots. But I also forget the procedure just as often.

So I keep a text file where I jot down all the different commands I've found useful in various programs. Here's the MATLAB part of my text file:
format long - print numbers in long format
matlab -nodesktop - runs MATLAB in non-buggy command line mode
help strfun - displays info about string functions
warning off - turns off warning messages

MATLAB debugger
dbcont - execute until next breakpoint
dbstop - execute current line of .m file
- see current value of variable_name
dbquit - quit debugger

How to alter graphics handle properties
H = plot(...)
H = legend(...)
set(H, 'parameter', parameter_value)
set(gca, 'parameter', paramater_value)

h = findobj(gca, 'Type', 'line');
set(h, 'LineWidth', 4, 'FontSize', 15);
set(gca, 'Linewidth', 4)

Transformation of an urban supermarket

I live in a town with a wealthy population of university residents and a large group of poor black people.

The supermarket in the town is "ghetto" compared to the store of the same chain in the more affluent town ten minutes away. By "ghetto," I mean that the supermarket in my town has crappy produce and few luxury and organic foods.

However, they have recently renovated the store. I was really surprised when I went grocery shopping today. There were new signs, added coffee grinders and gourmet coffee, specialty granola, better lighting on the produce, a new LCD TV, lots more ice cream and gourmet snack items, etc. There was greater emphasis on quality and selection as opposed to quantity of generic items from before.

I think the renovation was a good thing, but I can't help wondering what kind of impact it will have on my neighborhood. Will the "poor" people shop somewhere else?

27 January 2006

How to sign a letter

I believe in honesty and integrity, but it's hard to do that when you write letters (in real or electronic ink). Sometimes it's because you're writing a boilerplate thank you note to someone you don't know really well or because your relationship to the receipient is vaguely defined (is she my best friend or just a good friend?)

Here are some suggestions from a German site purporting to teach English. If you want to be mean, you can do it this way.

My comments on ways to sign off:
  • "Signing off" - kind of lame and unoriginal, but not offensive
  • "Goodbye" or "Bye" - communicates a lack of imagination
  • "Keep in touch" - a good, practical closing
  • "Love" - I reserve this one for family or significant-other
  • "Your pal" - one of my personal favorites, informal yet affectionate
  • "Take care" - parental benediction or what you write when you're worried about your friend
  • "See you around" - a little too informal for my taste
  • "Peace" - I don't like this one either
  • "Cheers" - seems kind of old-fashioned
  • "Fondly" - parental benediction
  • "Regards" - seems kind of impersonal
  • "Kind regards" or "Best regards" - a little less impersonal than "regards"
  • "Later" - I have better things to do than write to you
  • "Best wishes" - a rather formal closing (teacher to student, colleague to colleague, etc.)
  • "All the best" - parental benediction or to someone you like but don't know that well
  • "All my best" - a bit more personal than "all the best"
  • "Best" - someone who isn't good enough for "all the best" or maybe someone who was in a rush
  • "All the best and only the best" - overdoing the "best" closing
  • "Good luck" - an informal way of wishing someone the best
  • "Good skill" - obviously you don't believe in luck
  • "Sincerely" - what does that mean anyways? Would you write an insincere letter to someone?
  • "Yours truly" - truly what?
  • "Where did I put my brain" - psychotic closing (only use for very close friends or family)

Maybe it's better just to sign your name and not worry about the closing.

A magnanimous gift to RHIC

I have some friends who work on the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Lab in Long Island. They had told me that there was nothing to do because their funding had been cut by the Department of Energy.

Then, just over a week ago, comes a sudden announcement that $13 million had been generously donated to RHIC by a hedge fund!

I'm not exactly sure what to think. It's great that important science will be done, but I'm not altogether happy that basic science is heading towards the model of great patrons from centuries past. Particle and nuclear physicists are starting to seem like starving artists.

For more information on the RHIC donation, see an article from Newsday.

Link of the day: Wisdom from Benjamin Franklin

I haven't authenticated this link, but it's a pretty funny short on "Rules for Making Oneself a Disagreeable Companion."

26 January 2006

Stamp collecting

I'm a pack rat. As a child, I collected rocks (I really like volcanic rocks that have holes in them and shiny rocks such as mica), coins, fantasy art (the late Keith Parkinson is the best!), sea shells (like abalone), and fantasy weaponry (my mom bought me a Highlander katana from Spain last year; I also own a Klingon dagger and a decorative knife from Germany). As an adult, I collect books, music, digital photos, and now stamps!

Here are some of the ones I've collected this past year:

I bought a wee too many sheets (I have 4 sets of the Constellations), so I'm going to contain my zeal next time.

I've discovered that stamps are a great present. They are useful, look cool, and are inexpensive. I've given away airplane and Latin dancing stamps to friends.

My top game list

  1. Secret of Monkey Island 1/2 (PC)
  2. Final Fantasy VII (PC)
  3. Wing Commander II/III/IV (PC)
  4. Star Control II (PC)
  5. Quest for Glory I-IV (PC)
  6. Legend of Kyrandia 1-3 (PC)
  7. Prince of Persia 2 (PC)
  8. Speed Racer (PC)
  9. Diablo (PC)
  10. Civilization II (PC)
  11. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (PC)
  12. Lemmings (PC)
  13. Alone in the Dark (PC)
  14. Dune 2 (PC)
  15. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (NES)
  16. Street Fighter II (arcade)
  17. Wolfenstein 3D (PC)

I've beaten all the games on this list except the last two and Lemmings.

I'm not so sure about game soundtracks, but a few of my favorites are Final Fantasy VII, the Secret of Monkey Island series, and Lemmings.

Top games and game soundtracks of all time

While surfing the World Wide Web, I found a nice top 10 list for game soundtracks from Gamespot. I haven't played any of the games mentioned except for Final Fantasy VII, but I am a proud order of the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack (4 CDs of synthesized music!) Apparently, the #1 soundtrack was Final Fantasy VI. Hard to believe that a 1990s SNES game was the best, considering the limitations of computer-generated music those days!

I also found two top game lists: IGN's Top 100 Games and Gamespot's Greatest Games of All Time. Of the 100 games on IGN's list, I've played 25 of them. Of the 71 games on Gamespot's list, I've played 20 of them. Well, maybe I haven't missed out on too much! Besides all the great retro games end up being ported to Game Boy Advance. Final Fantasy IV was released last year and apparently V and VI will also be released in the near future.

Final Fantasy VII, Star Control II

Ah, nostalgia. Since I haven't played any games since Final Fantasy VII on PC (7.5 years ago), there is a lot to catch up on.

First, Final Fantasy VII (1997) now has a spin-off movie called Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Apparently all the famous characters are back: Cloud, Tifa, Red, Cid, Yuffie, Barrett, Vincent, Cat Sith. The movie was released in Japan in 2004, and supposedly the US DVD release is sometime this year.

I also remember being somewhat confused by the storyline in FFVII as there are many flashbacks. Here's a fan's guide to the plot.

Second, one of my favorite games of all time, Star Control II (1992), was released into open source in 2002. You can download the game and play it on your modern Windows XP, Mac, Linux machine.

Long live open source!

24 January 2006

Amateur photography

I like taking pictures. Someday, I'd like to get better at it. I think it would be a cool hobby.

Through an hour's of window surfing, I think the Canon Powershot S80 would be an awesome choice. It's compact and loaded with features, a middle ground between the point-and-shoot ultracompacts and the fancy digital SLRs. Plus, the S80 has wide angle for those breathtaking panoramic shots or large group portraits. Maybe I'll magically find $500 lying around...

One thing I wonder about is the S80's 8 megapixels. That's twice the number of my current camera (a Canon Powershot S400)!!! What do you do with all those extra pixels??!! Will I want to frame my "masterpiece" on the wall? OK, I'll save the speculation for when I get the camera...

22 January 2006

Comments on physicists

After attending my quantum mechanics class, my sister commented on the lecturer: "Oh, the guy with the frilly hair!" That guy happens to be the former undersecretary of the Department of Energy.

My sister and I were in a college bookstore looking at the physics section. We see a book on gravitation by the famous John Archibald Wheeler. My sister: "I don't like the name 'Archibald.' It sounds funny." An elderly man turns to us and says in a haughty voice, "John Archibald Wheeler was a great man."

Trip to Nintendo World

Due to the nice East Coast weather in recent days, I made a trip to Manhattan to see the Nintendo World Store.

Before I entered the store, I had my obligatory photo with Super Mario:

Inside, I saw fancy GameBoy Advance SPs in brilliant metallic colors:

There were a few historic exhibits including this GameBoy that survived the Gulf War and still plays Tetris:

Of course, I didn't leave without playing some demo games on GameCube!

Next generation LEGO Mindstorms

The rest of the LEGO product line might be in decline, but at least there's still Lego Mindstorms, the kit that allows you to make programmable, autonomous robots.

Now LEGO is gearing up to release their third version of Mindstorms called NXT (supposedly it will be released in August 2006). Wired magazine has a feature article and there is a blog about NXT as well.

For now, you can take a look at the LEGO robot I built with a partner for a one-month autonomous robotics contest (circa 2001):

18 January 2006

So you want to be a theoretical physicist?

In this article in Symmetry magazine, Andrzej Buras gives his secret recipe:
I can not cook and I never could. Therefore, during my PhD studies at the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, I ate from December 1971 to March 1973 (staying at a dormitory in Copenhagen) every day the same thing:

- 2 potatoes
- 1 cucumber
- 2 meat balls

"This is my secret recipe to become full professor in theoretical physics."

Thanks to Tom for sharing this link with me.

17 January 2006


I recently read an New York Times article entitled "The Pressure to Cover." Erving Goffman defines "covering" as "[being] ready to admit possession of a stigma... [but] nonetheless [making] a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large."

I'm not sure how covering is different than fitting in. But the point of the article is that pressure to conform to "mainstream" society is the "new discrimination" that will be tested in the American court system. The author of the article, Kenji Yoshino, singles out several court cases. For example, American Airlines tried to enforce their grooming policy against an African-American employee who worn corn-rows to work. In another case, a Jewish Air Force officer wore a yarmulke against a military rule forbidding headwear indoors. These cases concern traits that are mutable. You can't change the color of your skin, but you can alter your hairstyle.

While Yoshino praises the remarkable advance in civil rights cases of the 1960s, he says, "with respect to legal remedies, we must shift away from claims that demand equality for particular groups toward claims that demand liberty for us all."

I sincerely hope that both the legal system and society will move towards an accepting attitude. If college dormmates can accept each other despite sexual orientation, dress, religion, etc., maybe America as a whole will become more accepting in a generation or two.

16 January 2006

Link of the day: Hacking Xbox to run Linux

Here's an article about how to turn an Xbox into a stand-alone PC or how to put several Xboxes into a Beowulf cluster.

Song of the day: "Who Needs Sleep?" by Barenaked Ladies

A silly, but fun piece.
Now I lay me down not to sleep
I just get tangled in the sheets
I swim in sweat three inches deep
I just lay back and claim defeat

Chapter read and lesson learned
I turned the lights off while she burned
So while she's three hundred degrees
I throw the sheets off and I freeze

Lids down, I count sheep
I count heartbeats
The only thing that counts is
that I won't sleep
I countdown, I look around

Who needs sleep?
(well you're never gonna get it)
Who needs sleep?
(tell me what's that for)
Who needs sleep?
(be happy with what you're getting
There's a guy who's been awake
since the Second World War)


My hands are locked up tight in fists
My mind is racing filled with lists
of things to do and things I've done
Another sleepless night's begun

Lids down, I count sheep
I count heartbeats
The only thing that counts is
that I won't sleep
I countdown, I look around

Who needs sleep?
(well you're never gonna get it)
Who needs sleep?
(tell me what's that for)
Who needs sleep?
(be happy with what you're getting
There's a guy who's been awake
since the Second World War)


There's so much joy in life,
so many pleasures all around
But the pleasure of insomnia
is one I've never found
With all life has to offer,
There's so much to be enjoyed
But the pleasures of insomnia
are ones I can't avoid

Lids down, I count sheep
I count heartbeats
The only thing that counts is
that I won't sleep
I countdown, I look around

Hala Hala Hala...

Who needs sleep?
(well you're never gonna get it)
Who needs sleep?
(tell me what's that for)
Who needs sleep?
(be happy with what you're getting
There's a guy who's been awake
since the Second World War)


What's interesting and what's important

A friend of mine made a remark that many interesting things are not important and many important things are not interesting. He gave the examples of concurrent street lights as being interesting (unimportant) and health care as being important (uninteresting).

I thought I would list a few things I find interesting and/or important.

Interesting: there are very few orange colored cars, looking at the weave of my bed clothes when I wake up in the morning, modern cosmology and particle physics, subtle human conversation, the clothes people choose to wear, hair styles, mannerisms of professors while they teach, the way people walk (it seems to be very distinctive), the sound structure of sneezing (my sister thinks family members have similar sneezes), Seinfeld-like TV shows, stylish electronic gear (e.g. ipod), the physics of ice skating and other sports, banana slugs, the texture of leaves, music that shifts from major to minor keys suddently, non-native English (I especially like the lilting tone of Italian accents)

Important: much of politics, personal finance, diversity issues (e.g. women in science), poverty, health care, how to educate people, funding in science, voting, discrimination, being a good leader (e.g. delegating tasks), being on time, how to be a good person in society (I mean the nitty gritty details), cleaning my room, global warming, ergonomic design

Interesting and important: the intricate structure of snowflakes (important in how ice forms), surface tension of water (especially on my hi-tech Gore-Tex jacket), Battlestar Galactica - a great combination of entertaining action and thoughtful commentary on society, the thought processes of organization, personal and social psychology (e.g. family interactions, group dynamics), parts of condensed matter physics, applied physics, biology and chemistry (which tend to be more applied than fundamental physics), neuroscience, photography and art that documents our history, practical philosophy (not the modern stuff), literature and art that gives insight into how we should live our lives, raising children, artificial intelligence, ecology

Obviously these lists are very subjective. I try to work on things that are both interesting and important and try to keep tabs on the solely interesting and solely important things in my off time. I roughly define "interesting but not important" as seemingly trivial observations we make in everyday life and "important but not interesting" as either complex, abstract issues that give me a headache or practical drudgery.

14 January 2006

More computer games

My sister noted that I forgot some games in my video/computer game history.

One of my favorite games was Star Control II -- an adventure/action game. You travel around in a spaceship, meeting other alien races, conducting diplomatic conversations, searching for relics, etc. If you get into a fight with another alien race, the game switches into an arcade style spaceship battle.

Another game I enjoyed was Diablo where you play a character who fights skeletons and other monsters in a dungeon. It's a rather dark game. Usually I don't do very well at this genre, but I did manage to beat this game.

Then there are educational games. I grew up with Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? (a puzzle mystery game) and Oregon Trail (an adventure game). I also played quite a few Learning Company titles like Spellbound (spelling bees), Math Blaster, and the Incredible Machine (a game where you build Rube-Goldberg machines, not sure if this one was made by the Learning Company). Carmen San Diego and Oregon Trail are truly children's classics; I believe they are still made.

09 January 2006

Useful stuff: Computer hardware

I like being practical and efficient. So I'm starting a little series of posts about stuff I find useful (mostly things I already have).

  • A nice LCD monitor (17" and up) - I recommend one of the Dell models since they are automatically height and tilt adjustable.
  • Thinkpad - a great laptop for on the go, especially the T series
  • An external backup hard drive - I'd like to get a one-touch hard drive that backs up with a press of a button
  • "Good" keyboard - I recommend the Goldtouch keyboard. The keys have a nice touch, it has no numeric keyboard (so you can put the mouse closer to you), good key layout, and ergonomic adjustable splitting and tilting. It's not ridiculously expensive or frilled with gratuitous features.
  • Computer speakers - I'm not audiophile, but I've had a good experience with the Creative I-trigue 2200. They are compact 2:0 speakers, look stylish, and sound good.

My history in video and computer games

I remember playing the Nintendo Entertainment System as a 6-year old child. Some games I played were Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, Duck Hunt, Megaman, RBI Baseball, Legend of Zelda II, Gauntlet, and Final Fantasy. Most of these were the quick play variety and very simple to learn. I also played Street Fighter II at the arcade. The only move I can do is Ryu and Ken's fireball.

Then I switched over to playing PC games, mostly adventure games like Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, King's Quest, Quest for Glory, Legend of Kyrandia plus a few action games like Alone in the Dark, Wolfenstein 3D, and Prince of Persia. The one puzzle oriented game I liked was Lemmings. (In this game, you make Lemmings perform certain tasks: bridge building, mining, blocking, etc. to guide them to the exit. Otherwise, they just fall to their death like stupid lemmings.) I also really liked the space simulator Wing Commander and managed to beat Final Fantasy VII (with heavy hints) the summer before I went to college.

Adventure games are sort of like a light puzzle. You control a character who interacts with other characters, picks up objects, uses them in different locations. Secret of Monkey Island is probably the premiere game of this genre. For example, to become a pirate, you need to fight the Swordmaster (actually a woman). But the only way to find the Swordmaster is to ask the shopkeeper and secretly follow him all the way to the Swordmaster's house! Another nice aspect of many adventure games (except King's Quest) is that it's nearly impossible to die and very hard to get into a situation where you have made a irrevocable decision and have to start over.

Secret of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones were made by LucasArts and had a characteristic sense of humor. There is the famous sequence in Monkey Island where you win sword fights by exchanging insults with your opponent. For example, "You fight like a dairy farmer." "How appropriate. You fight like a cow." Or when you pull out the evil nemesis's underpants because you need that item to complete a voodoo doll. Sometimes the humor is just in the game for no reason. Like when you fall off a cliff, the game appears to be over (in a King's Quest-like way), and then you hit a rubber banana tree and bounce back up to the cliffside. Or in the dialogue: "2,4,6,8, who do we assassinate? Largo, Largo, yay!" (a satire on the cheer I did in childhood soccer games)

Quest for Glory (much time spent on leveling up your character) and Alone in the Dark (exploring, shooting a few evil creatures, and doing some tricky 3D jumping) are adventure/RPG hybrids. I remember that the first Quest for Glory game didn't even use a mouse; you had to manually type commands like "climb tree". Prince of Persia is hybrid of action and puzzle-solving. You get into sword fights with enemies, but you spend most of your time carefully timing leaps over pits and avoiding spiky booby traps. You basically spend each level figuring out how to escape alive.

The more traditional shoot-em up games I played were Wing Commander (shoot space ships from a cockpit) and Wolfenstein 3D (shoot Nazis). Final Fantasy VII was the true (role-playing-game) RPG I played -- a beautiful game artistically with a thoughtful story but also incredibly complex and time-consuming. Nowadays, the Final Fantasy series is so famous and the expectations are so demanding that a release of a Final Fantasy game is like the Super Bowl x 10.

Oh and strategy games! I also played Civilization II and managed to conquer the world on easy levels. I think my main trick was to create a spy and infiltrate enemy cities and cause rebellions. I played Warcraft (usually being the knights vs. the orcs) although I wasn't very good at the real-time aspect and usually lost after the first few levels.

Fast forward through a dark age of 7 years with no games! Well, I was busy studying. But now, no more! I just bought an Nintendo Gamecube (yeah, I'm a late adopter and terrible at shoot-em games like Quake and Halo). As a graduate student, I don't really have time to work through a Final Fantasy RPG, but I do like playing short, fun games like Mario Kart. My Gamecube is a way to relax for 30 minutes and clear my mind. Maybe later I'll review some Gamecube games!