19 February 2006

You only think you're tired...

Wow, I don't know what to say. I'm an recreational athelete and I like to push myself, but Jure Robic, the Slovenian ultracyclist, is something out of this world.

18 February 2006

Conversational terrorism

Here is an amusing article on combative conversation. Perhaps this is useful when you have to answer questions from some obnoxious, socially-inept physicist in the audience...

17 February 2006

Why paper is cool

I think it's pretty obvious that paper is very useful for many intellectual tasks. In case you need convincing, check out this article by Malcolm Gladwell called "The Social Life of Paper."

16 February 2006

Olympic hockey TV schedule

I finally found a webpage that lists the times and channels for the Olympic hockey games.

13 February 2006

A theoretical physics contest

I read about about the LHC Olympics at Lubos Motl's blog. It's a really neat idea: some really smart senior particle theorists make up LHC (Large Hadron Collider) data and then other phenomenologists (e.g. graduate students) have to try and figure out which model fits the data the best.

I wonder if it would be possible to do this kind of contest in condensed matter theory.

Searchable page of links

Here's my personal contribution to the ever-growing library of life hacks on the web.

I found that a webpage is a good way to organize your favorite websites. Make a private webpage for yourself that contains links to websites you visit frequently. Divide it into categories like: email, school, science, hobbies, etc. Make all the links text separated by a delimiter (e.g. "|" or "/"). For example,


National Hockey League / Major League Baseball / National Football League

Now you can search for the links on the page and jump to any of your favorite pages lightning fast. This is a much better way of organizing your commonly visited websites than using the built-in bookmarks feature on browsers.

Also, if you save your webpage on a server (say your university account), you don't have to worry about accidentally deleting your bookmarks or having to import bookmarks when you switch browsers from say Internet Explorer to Netscape.

Keyboard shortcuts

I found some cool keyboard shortcuts via Lifehacker.

You can use the run command on windows to access settings (e.g. Add/Remove Programs) and utility programs (e.g. calculator) quickly. Here's a webpage which lists over 100 commands.

You can also create keyboard shortcuts for commonly used programs. First, create a shortcut for the program's executable file (e.g. Firefox) on your desktop. Then right-click on the shortcut icon to access "Properties". In the "Shortcut" tab, there's an option to set the "shortcut key." I use something like "CTRL + ALT + first_letter_of_program_name". So Firefox would be "CTRL + ALT + F."

The underlying theme behind any life hack (like a keyboard shortcut) is to make tools in your life an extension of your brain. Sure, you could look for the icon to run Firefox, but it would be much more natural to type "CTRL + ALT + F" in one motion, or better yet, just say "Run Firefox" to your computer.

Entropy song

Yeah, umm, this song is pretty nerdy, but maybe it would excite 10 year olds to learn more about science...

Computer security

I've upped the security on my computer. First, I log on with a limited Windows XP account instead of my administrator account. Second, I've installed Zone Alarm, a free firewall.

12 February 2006

Yahoo! calendar

I've switched calendars to Yahoo calendar. It's simple, free, and has email reminders. What more do you need?

Some interesting blogs

I perused the most popular blogs on Bloglines and found:

11 February 2006

Bloglines: a nice RSS reader

I now switched to Bloglines for my RSS reader. It's a web-based service so you can access it from any computer. Much better for me since I shuttle between my home and my office.

Backing up your blog

As a followup to my previous post, I found an excellent resource about how you can backup your blog.

Backing up data

I'm always paranoid about my computer's data. I have music, photos, documents, research, etc. on my hard drive.

That got me thinking... what are some good ways to backup your data? The most obvious way is to use removable media like CD-ROMS, tapes, DVDs, etc. But it's not very efficient given that we have enormous hard drives to backup nowadays. If you want to go this way, it's preferable to get an external hard drive and backup onto that. The fancy way to do this is to use a RAID array. I don't know much about it, just that it's the professional method of hard drive backup.

What if you're really paranoid? For instance, if your home catches on fire, the fact that you backed up your files on your external hard drive isn't going to do much good, if your external hard drive is sitting next to your home computer. One way is to backup onto a remote server. LiveVault provides this kind of service commercially. Personally, a more economical and practical way is to just back up onto a mobile hard drive and bring it somewhere else (like your office). Maybe the new LaCie rugged hard drive would be ideal.

10 February 2006

The power of text files

Text files are great. They are the ultimate in backwards compatible, easily searchable, and easily created. It's really just a fancier version of paper and pencil.

Merlin Mann has a pretty cool system at 43Folders.

09 February 2006

Intellectual ADD?

I feel like I'm developing a form of attention deficit disorder (ADD). I prefer whipping through short snappy internet articles to slowly working though a novel. Sometimes, I'll even rather read a short BBC News article than a long New York Times magazine article. I'd rather read about sports than about the latest physics news. Sometimes I prefer to email people than to talk to them (but maybe that depends on my mood and their level of busyness).

Am I becoming mentally lazy? Is the internet contributing to my short attention span? I notice that I didn't watch too much TV as a child and I still don't. Is the internet the newest form of intellectual corruption? It seems like I'm learning about interesting things, but really I'm just accumulating fleeting tidbits of trivia. Is it really important that I know what are the latest models of ultracompact digital cameras (virtual window shopping), the last week's scores in the NFL (I'm not even a football fan), or the top 10 grossing movies of all time? I feel like I have control over what I choose to read, but isn't the internet worse than TV if I choose to read junk where as on (free, non-cable) TV there is a limited selection of programming? I have found some consistently outstanding content on the web, but I also waste a lot of time doing all encompassing searches on people (stalking) or topics (what are the latest rumors about Battlestar Galactica?).

I do resist in some ways. I still listen to music by album and not by playlist (no random shuffle for me!) I still watch movies and epic season-arcing TV series as opposed to stand-alone TV episodes.

I'm trying harder to stop reading junk on the net. I only save links to sites that are really good. I have several tiers of links: things I should read everyday (news, science), technical links that I don't look at frequently, and links to fun stuff and hobbies. I'm trying to subscribe to world news on my RSS reader, so I don't always gravitate to the sports, health, education, and technology sections of the New York Times in favor of politics, foreign affairs, and economics.

Pandora: a software DJ

I'm always trying to find new music I like. Enter Pandora - a Flash based website that makes music recommendations based on a favorite song or artist. It's free - with ads or you can subscribe if you don't like ads.

I'm trying out Pandora and it seems quite promising so far. For more information, see the website FAQ. Unfortunately, they don't have classical music available yet.

Life hacks: RSS reading

I finally decided to start using an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reader. Hopefully, it will help me read things I should be reading efficiently. Here are some sites that have RSS feeds:

and many blogs.

What is RSS? It's a way that you can updates from website you frequently visit. Instead of constantly checking the website, the updates are automatically delivered to you like email. This system is handy when you read blogs that are updated infrequently or want to get up-to-date news. The danger is that you'll subscribe to too many RSS feeds and end up bombarding yourself with information.

I currently use the built-in Opera RSS reader because I like being able to use Opera as the embedded web browser. However, there are more feature-rich readers out there.

07 February 2006

Ugly financial battles

Today I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a donor who is suing Princeton University for using the funds against his family's wishes.

The article doesn't defend Princeton at all. It makes it sound like the university was constantly rerouting money that had been earmarked for a specific purpose to general funds (where God knows what happened to the money).

Part of the problem is that donors expect universities to manage their money for them. What a remarkable irony: if you have lots of money, it takes a lot of work to give it away properly. I notice that really wealthy people (the Hewletts & Packards, Bill Gates, Carnegie Mellon, etc.) set up their own foundations. The only way to be sure your money is used properly is to manage it yourself.

This article serves as a telling lesson for all of us. Keep your financial life squeaky clean. People can tolerate rude behavior, extra-martial affairs, etc., but no one forgives financial wrongdoing even if it might have been a mistake.

Digital voice recording

Over the weekend, I got an Olympus DS-2 digital voice recorder. My purchase was influenced by the enthusiastic review at O'Reilly.

I tried it out yesterday at a group meeting. It was amazing; I was sitting sideways towards the speaker and I still managed to get an excellent recording. It even picked up comments from the audience. I recorded in Stereo SP format (frequency range 44.1 kHz, 64 kbps). There's an even higher quality stereo recording mode that offers 128 kbps which is standard mp3 quality! I think the DS-2 is one of the few digital voice recorders to offer a built-in stereo microphone. The playback speaker on the (tiny!) device was remarkably good and there's also a noise-cancelling option for playback which I really liked. The DS-2 records in the WMA (Windows Media Audio) format. I'm not entirely happy that it's in a Microsoft file format, but at least it's easily convertible with sound utility software. Everything is recorded digitally in the onboard memory of the device, so no messing with tapes. After you make a recording, you can transfer it to your computer with a USB cradle.

The major drawback of the DS-2 is that the player only has 64 MB of memory. That means you can only record about an hour on the highest quality mode. What were they thinking?! Memory isn't that expensive nowadays.

In the future, I may try using the DS-2 as an audio diary (for those passing brilliant thoughts...maybe). I highly recommend the Olympus DS-2 for all your learning needs.

05 February 2006

Listening favorites

I'm on a blogging binge today.

Since I listed my top games of all time, I thought I'd list some of my favorite music (the criterion being what I would listen to on a deserted island):

  • Alternative - Barenaked Ladies, Disc One: All Their Greatest Hits (1991-2001)
  • Bluegrass - Nickel Creek, Nickel Creek
  • Classical - Van Cliburn, Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 / Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2
  • Country - Travis Tritt, Down The Road I Go & Brad Paisley, Mud On The Tires
  • Jazz - Ella Fitzgerald, Irving Berlin Songbook
  • Musical - Jonathan Larson, Rent & Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
  • Opera - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro
  • Rock - Blues Traveler, Four
  • Soundtrack - Greg Edmonson, Firefly
  • Swing - Glenn Miller, Swing Time

My new plant

So I did get a plant for my office. Here's a picture:

It's a jade plant which is supposedly easy to take care of. We'll see how green my thumb is.

Grad student life: Recreation

Following up on my friend Jack's recent post, I've been thinking about how to get the most productivity and enjoyment out of grad student life.

In the past, my problem has not been working but taking a break from work. As an undergrad, I worked almost every spare moment I had because I loved what I was doing, because the people around me were so enthusiastic and driven, and because well, I didn't know any better.

Now that physics is no longer the shiny new subject on the block and that grad students are mostly jaded, grouchy creatures compared to undergrads, I find it trickier to keep myself happy.

Here are some reliably fun activities:
  • Going to the gym
  • Ice skating
  • Playing ice hockey
  • Watching ice hockey
  • Reading about ice hockey
  • Reading the news
  • Playing video games
  • Reading about video games
  • Reading about new technology
  • Watching Battlestar Galactica
  • Taking the bus or train out of town
  • Planning wild ideas
  • Writing in my blog
  • Tinkering with my computer
  • Window shopping
  • Singing along to music

I just got a new basketball and I hope to try it out in the gym soon; I played on the basketball team in high school. I also enjoy reading books and watching movies, but it's hard to pick something good with consistency. I tend to do those things more when I go on vacation. Concerts are also kind of hit-or-miss for me.

Battlestar Galactica on iTunes

Battlestar Galactica and a few other TV shows are available for downloading on iTunes the day after air date.

Since my TV viewing experience was ruined by Friday night party-goers in the rec room, I decided to give iTunes a try. It took about 30 minutes to download the episode ("Scar") on my T1 line. The video itself was about 2" x 3" in widescreen format. The sound was pretty good.

For $2 an episode, it's not a bad deal. I don't personally like the small screening size, but for others, iTunes TV episodes might be a good buy.

Useful stuff: Software

Here is some well-known and relatively unknown software I like:
  • Break Reminder - a pretty good RSI prevention program. Every 10 minutes, it blacks out the monitor and forces me to take a 20 second break.
  • dbPowerAMP - rips your CDs into mp3s. It's fast.
  • TexPoint - Add-on to Windows version Powerpoint. It allows you to add LaTeX equations and characters to your presentations. It's easy to use; you can even made the equations colored with the appropriate LaTeX commands.
  • Opera - The best web browser ever. 1) It's not Internet Explorer so it won't be exploited as much, 2) It has shortcut keys to magnify the text on the screen (so I don't get bleary-eyed while reading the New York Times), 3) You can navigate text links and image links (but not Javascript stuff) with the keyboard (the mouse hurts my hand), 4) It's fast. Occasionally, there is a webpage that Opera can't read, but those are rare cases.
  • Picasa - image processing and organizing software. I really like the web galleries that it generates.
  • WinSCP - nice interface for sending and receiving files between your home and remote computers. If your remote account doesn't have an FTP server, this software allows you to send files anyway by SCP protocol.
  • Weather Watcher - a nifty widget that checks the Weather Channel every hour or so for the temperature and conditions outside. It's especially handy if your computer is continuously connected to the internet.
  • WebGrab - a utility that will automatically download all files of certain type (say .pdf) on a webpage. This is handy if you're a pack rat like me and want to download a bunch of documents from a course webpage.
  • WinAlarm - a plugin for WinAmp allows you to use your computer as an alarm clock. Some nice features: you can set how long the music plays after the alarm has gone off, you can pick a playlist or directory for its music selection, the plugin can fade in and fade out the volume (helpful for people who like waking up to "Ride of the Valkyries"). I like waking up to a random selection of my favorite mp3s.

04 February 2006

Pets in the office?

I was thinking that I might enjoy going to my office more if I had something to take care of. A swimming fish would be too distracting (and who will feed it during winter break?) An electronic pet would be too portable (I want to have an incentive to come into the office everyday). My sister often talked about how she would wake up in a panic and run to her lab to take care of her yeast. I asked her about whether I could grow them in my office. Her reply:
Ummm, no. You need a shaker with a constant temperature regulator at round 28 to 32 deg. And you need to prepare all the nutrient solutions, which requires a lab, lots of chemicals, and instruments like pipettes and pH meters. And you need to introduce the yeast culture under sterile conditions, so for that, you need a sterile lab bank (operates under negative air pressure so that the bacteria can't get in). You also need an autoclave to heat the media to 120 deg for about 20 minutes to sterilize the media. You also need a centrifuge to harvest the yeast.

Maybe I'll get a plant! Or I could get a Robosapien!

03 February 2006

VGA box as a handy gamer solution

I bought an Nintendo Gamecube but I didn't want to also get a TV.

The solution I found was to get a Mayflash VGA Box (see photo below). It allows you to connect a Gamecube, Microsoft Xbox, or Sony PlayStation 2 console to your computer monitor.

Here is a shot of the VGA box alongside the Gamecube.

The VGA box is especially useful if you already have a nice computer monitor (mine is a 20" LCD) and don't want to spend money on a TV (who needs those anyways?) I really like the fact that the VGA box doesn't need an external power source; it draws its power from the Gamecube. Also, the box can be set up as a switch between your PC and game console. That means that you can switch between your PC and console by just turning the VGA box on/off. When the box is off, it just acts like a pass-through connection for your computer sound card and monitor.

Now I can play Mario Kart on my computer monitor!