13 December 2009

Malcolm Gladwell book signing

I happened to visit Barnes and Nobles, for the purposes of killing some time and I stumbled upon a special book launch and signing event, featuring Malcolm Gladwell. He just released a collection of his essays called What the Dog Saw.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite writers, stylistically. He picks interesting topics, tries to find unusual perspectives on them, and writes with an engaging, scientific-curious voice. I'm not a huge fan of his full-length books as they seem to cover too broad a scope, seem disjointed, and lack well-written conclusions. However, I enjoy many of his New Yorker essays.

Gladwell decided to entertain the audience with a humorous recollection of Taro the dog. When he was a beginning journalist, he became the New York area correspondent for the Washingtonian. He got the job because he was the only applicant. As time went on, he realized that no one cared about his stories. They were never picked up. Out of frustration, Gladwell decided he would only write stories about Bergen County, New Jersey, which was near Manhattan. For a short period of time, he only read the news coming out of Bergen County and had no idea what was going on in the rest of the world.

Gladwell said that in retrospect, Bergen County was a good choice because it was as if all the crazy people from the Bronx had moved there. The county had a fragmented political system, with many tiny municipal governments. For example, there were many school districts containing only fifty students. Parents would get nervous that one district was better than their own, so they would fake addresses to get their kids into that district. Consequently, the school districts hired detectives who would spy on the routes that the parents drove when they dropped their kids off.

Eventually, Gladwell had his breakout story. Taro was a 110 pound Akita. Her owner's 9 year old granddaughter got up at night to use the bathroom and accidentally tripped over Taro's slumbering mass. Taro reacted by biting her lip. New Jersey has strict laws about dogs and this act of violence landed Taro in "doggy death row." But that wasn't the end of the story. This incident resulted in five lawsuits. Gladwell proceeded to read various funny quotes from people involved in the case. One lawyer claimed that this case was basically one of the most important ones he had undertaken in his career. The owner said that the cut on her granddaughter's lip was not a big deal. Some lipstick would cover it up or plastic surgery could remove it.

During his investigative reporting, Gladwell went to New Jersey's "doggy death row." He was not allowed to see Taro, which shows that doggy death row is even more strict than human death row. He then drove around to the bag of the building. The prison was separated from him by a deep ravine and he could see barbed wire surrounding the kennel. He (or possibly the owner) shouted Taro's nickname "T" and then Taro appeared from a distance and began barking. Since Gladwell was unable to "meet" Taro in person, he decided to "interview" Taro's mother. In the short time that he had, he was unable to determine if Taro's mother was simply neurotic or if the owner had caused her to become this way.

Gladwell's story was picked up by the New York Post, with the title "Death Row Dog." The public outcry over Taro led to her being pardoned by the New Jersey governor.

After the Taro dog story, Gladwell entertained 20 minutes of questions from the audience. One person asked him to describe his thought-process / workflow for writing a story. Gladwell didn't have any specific formula. He said that you should write about a topic that excites/provokes you, in his words, a topic that "puts a bee under you bonnet." He added that most of his stories are quite long (e.g. his New Yorker essays), so he finds it necessary to include a B-plot. Another person asked him who his favorite authors were and how many books he read a month. Gladwell said he admired Michael Lewis, especially his book Blind Side. Gladwell called Blind Side the "perfect" book. He reads parts of 20 books a month which he said is not "very impressive" considering that it's his job. The final question was somewhat provocative. A man asked (paraphrase) "Do you think that given enough time, anyone can find a way to argue any viewpoint?" The author's response was that yes, he looks at ideas on the fringe of conventional wisdom, but his goal is only to engage the audience, not to persuade or force his opinions on people.

The the hour was up and the book signing began. I estimate that 2/3 of the audience (including me) left. I thought about getting a book signed and putting it on Ebay but since so many people left, I thought that the market for a Malcolm Gladwell probably wasn't that large.

07 December 2009

Trash the dress

A popular new sub-genre in wedding photography has emerged, called "Trash the Dress". Thanks to Canon rep, Rick Berk, for telling me about it.

06 December 2009

Song of the day: "Jump" by Van Halen

Thanks to the TV show Glee for introducing me to another great song. This one is full of fun and energy.
I get up, and nothing gets me down
You got it tough, I've seen the toughest around
And I know, baby just how you feel
You got to roll with the punches and get to what's real

Can't you see me standin' here
I got my back against the record machine
I ain't the worst that you've seen
Can't ya see what I mean?

Might as well jump (jump)
Might as well jump
Go ahead and jump (jump)
Go ahead and jump

Ow-oh! Hey you! Who said that? Baby, how you been?
You say you don't know, you won't know until you begin

So can't you see me standing here
I got my back against the record machine
I ain't the worst that you've seen
Ah, can't ya see what I mean?

Ah, might as well jump (jump)
Go ahead and jump
Might as well jump (jump)
Go ahead and jump
Jump

[instrumental]

Might as well jump (jump)
Go ahead and jump
Get in and jump (jump)
Go ahead and jump
Jump
Jump
Jump
Jump

21 November 2009

Song of the day: "The Riddle Song" by Adam Guettel

I love this song. Floyd Collins is a cave explorer who accidentally becomes trapped in a cave (this is a real historical person), and in "The Riddle Song", his brother Homer comes down and tries to cheer him up by telling him riddles. The music beautifully conveys the brothers's joy and love for each other. These lyrics are no substitute for hearing the song in full.

From the musical Floyd Collins
FLOYD
Homer? Homer? Ya thar, buddy?

HOMER
What's made a' stone,
but's soft like a pillow?

FLOYD
That's not what I asked you. What's pink and green an' flies all over?

HOMER
What's made a' stone,
but is soft like a pillow?
Where you kin lay on top
or sink down in it?
Where you kin git underneath,
but it don't crush you.

Come on, think now.
You better think now, Floyd.
Give it some thought, now.
It ain't hard!
You know;
I know you know.
I'm a-harkenin' back to a time ago
when a day wasn't done
if we didn't raise hell,
and the sun put us under a magic spell.

Huh? You're a dumb-ass, you know that? You must be the dumbest-ass...

FLOYD
Shut up! I got it.

HOMER
Wal?

FLOYD
Sand!

HOMER
Sorry.

FLOYD
But it's made a' stone and soft like a feather, you kin lay on top or sink down in it...

HOMER
Yeah, but that ain't this riddle and you ain't got it yet,
so keep thinkin', an use yer brain this time.

What's made a' stone
but's soft like a pillow?

FLOYD
I done' tol' you already, Homer. I said 'sand', like the Great Sand Cave.

HOMER
An' I said, 'Sorry'.

What's made a' stone
but is soft like a pillow?
Where you kin float on top
or dive down in it?
Where you kin sink underneath
but it don't crush you?

Come on, think now.
You better think now, Floyd.
Give it some thought, now.
It' ain't hard!
You know;
I know you know.
I'm a-harkenin' back to a time ago
when you'd say to me,
"Homer, are you ready?
Are you set?"
An' I'd say to you,
"Floyd, are you ready to git wet?"

FLOYD
I know!
What's soft jes' like a pillow,
made a' rock, carved in stone?
The answere to the riddle
surely is the quarry!

BOTH
The quarry!

FLOYD
The sun beatin' down
on our faces all blisterin' hot, Homer.
We'd run off alone
to our own secret spot, Homer.
Under the shade
'side our ol fishin' hole,
we'd each have some worms
an' an ol' fishin' pole.

HOMER
With school far away
like it warn't there at all, Floyd.
We'd hook for a day
and we'd sure as hell have us a ball, Floyd.
Go for a swim
jes' to cool off our hide;
float on top
with the sky open wide.

FLOYD
All right, okay-- I got one fer you.

What's got a trunk an' a tail
an' fifty limbs?

HOMER
Ssh, I'm concentratin' on diggin', Floyd.

FLOYD
You ain't concentratin', you fibber.
You jes' a wee bit slow in the head, jes' like you always was...

a wee bit slow.
What's got a trunk an' a tail
an' fifty limbs?
That you kin ride all day
but you don't go nowhere,
only front to bark, to an' fro?

Come on think now.
You better think now, Homer.
Give it some thought, now.
It ain't hard!
You know;
I know you know.
I'm a-harkenin' back to a time ago
when a day didn't pass
when you couldn't catch us tryin'
to ride it high till it felt like flyin'!

HOMER
I know!
The answer to the riddle--
trunk an' a tail an' fifty limbs!
The answer to the riddle
surely is the swing tree!

BOTH
The swing tree!

HOMER
We'd shimmy on up
like an Indian huntin' a squirrel, Floyd.

FLOYD
Da, da, dacky, dicky, da.
Da, da, dacky, dicky, dicka.

HOMER
Up to the crook
where we could look down on the world, Floyd,

FLOYD
Da, da, dacky, dicky, da.
Da, da, dacky, dicky, dicka.

HOMER
out on a limb
where that ol' rope was hung,
high 'bove the water,
waitin' to be swung.

FLOYD
Da, da dacky, dicky, da.

BOTH
Da, da dacky, dicky, dicka.
Slide down the rope
an' my legs start to pump, Floyd/Homer.

HOMER
Da, da dacky, dicky, da.

FLOYD
Da, da, dacky, dicky dicka

BOTH
My heart starts to pound,
an' my head starts to thump Floyd/Homer.

FLOYD
Da, da, dacky, dicky, da

BOTH
Da, da dacky, dicky, dicka.
Higher an' higher I'm swingin' along.
We'd git to singin'
that ol's swingin' song!
Da, da dacky, dicky, da.
Da, da dacky, dicky, dicka.
Da, da dacky, dicky, da.
Da, da dacky, dicky, dicka.
Da, da dl'dicky, dicky, dicka.
Da, da, dl'dicky, dicky, dicka.
Da, da dl'dicky, dicky, dicka.
Da, da, dl'dicky, dicky, dicka.

FLOYD
An' when I don't weigh nothin'
light as air, I let go.
Spinnin' off an' flippin' over;
All that water far below.
An' I open up for my swan dive,
my spread eagle,
my Jesus-on-the-cross!
For thine is the kingdom
and the power
and the glory...
Forever an' ever...
through the flashing sun...
Ever an' ever...
Over an' over...
fallin' into that black water...
An' that rock,
stickin' up an' comin' at my face!
That cold, black grave...
cold grave...
grave...

HOMER
Floyd? Floyd, come on back now... It's me, buddy, come to yer rescue.
Now you jes' lie there an' rest, 'cause I'm about to git you free.
Now here's the final riddle, Floyd. See if you kin answer me this:

What's strong as a bull
an' smart as a fox?
Quick as a hare
an' stubborn as a mule,
kin make like a snake
through the tiniest hole,
kin get hung up for days
an' turn out fine?

Look-ee here, now.
There ain't no two ways about it.
You don't have to worry at all,
we're almost there.
You know;
I know you know.
I'm a-harkenin' back to a time ago
when a day didn't end
that we didn't help each other,
kinda like a friend an'
kinda like a brother.
An' it don't matter none
if it's me or if it's you;
There ain't no hole
that we can't pull through!

FLOYD
I know!

HOMER
Hot damn!

FLOYD
Yessir!

HOMER
Oo-ee!

FLOYD
It's good to see you Homer!

HOMER
We better clean you up
before they take your picture!

FLOYD
You jes' as ugly as you ever was!
What yook you so damn long?
Takin' too much like you always are.

HOMER
What's black an' fast an' shiny?

FLOYD
Fast enough to make a panther squall?

HOMER
Who's gonna be there in it?

FLOYD
Lookin' fine an' sittin' tall!

HOMER
Straight to Louisville, who will tear?

FLOYD
Far away from the toil an' care...

HOMER
With money to burn,

FLOYD
On a hell of a spree,

HOMER
the devil to pay?

BOTH
It's plain to see;
That's an easy one:
That's us!
That's us!

18 November 2009

Link of the day: Can D.I.Y. Supplant the First-Person Shooter?

I've always complained that video games are not very inventive. Most of the blockbusters seem to be strategy, role-playing games, racing games, and shooter games. That's why I can go years without playing games and still feel like I haven't missed anything. I was excited to read this New York Times article about a group of people who are trying to change monolithic quality of gaming.

12 November 2009

Fountain pens

As if I needed another hobby. I love writing implements, so I guess it was an inevitability that I would discover fountain pens. Thanks to the awesome online store JetPens, I picked up a few items.

The first pen is the Lamy AL-Star. It's regarded as one of the best "cheap" fountain pens. The body is made out of shiny royal blue aluminum and it has a wonderful ergonomic grip. This pen came with the extra fine nib and I used the included ink cartridge (a pretty standard blue). The point was amazingly fine, but a little scratchy. The Lamy is definitely the classiest looking of the three pens.

Lamy AL-Star writing sample:


Lamy AL-Star closeup:


The second pen is the Platinum Preppy with the 03 fine nib. I used it as an eyedropper pen, so it's technically a fountain pen that has been converted. I got one of the Noodler's Ink kits from JetPens. It includes a bottle of Noodler's Ink (in this case, Polar Blue) and a Platinum Preppy modified to be an eyedropper pen. I really liked the color of the ink. It's blue, but not the typical disposable pen blue ink. Noodler's claims that the ink is waterproof and forge-proof. I loved writing with this pen. So smooth.

Platinum Preppy writing sample:


Platinum Preppy closeup:



The last pen I tried was the Kaweco Sport Classic. It was recommended by as a good fountain pen to convert into a eyedropper by Writer's Bloc. There is no size specification on the nib, but it seems like a medium point. It came with a blue ink cartridge, which I inserted. Unfortunately, I had a hard time getting the ink to start. This pen seems the most "buggy" out of the three. I have to draw a bunch of test strokes before I can get the ink flowing reliably. I'm not sure if the pen is defective or if I have to try some tricks, but I find that I have to press down with the nib. Fountain pens are supposed to flow easily without pressure. The nice feature of the pen is that it's so small. I haven't tried converting it to an eyedropper yet.

Kaweco Sport Classic writing sample:


Kaweco Sport Classic closeup:


Here is a comparison of writing with all three pens.


My favorite pen thus far is the Platinum Preppy. Amazing for a $3 pen!

11 November 2009

Link of the day: How to backup Facebook

I tried the ArchiveFB Firefox extension and it seems to work pretty well. Yay, a way to backup Facebook! Just follow this guide.

03 November 2009

Song of the day: "Maybe this time" by John Kander and Fred Ebb

I saw Kristin Chenoweth perform this song on an episode of the new TV series Glee. It was originally written for the film version of the musical Cabaret. I suppose Liza Minelli's version didn't leave much of an impression on me. But Kristin's rendition is great!

From Cabaret (film)
Maybe this time, I'll be lucky
Maybe this time, he'll stay
Maybe this time
For the first time
Love won't hurry away

He will hold me fast
I'll be home at last
Not a loser anymore
Like the last time
And the time before

Everybody loves a winner
So nobody loved me;
'Lady Peaceful,' 'Lady Happy,'
That's what I long to be
All the odds are in my favor
Something's bound to begin
It's got to happen, happen sometime
Maybe this time I'll win

02 November 2009

Ed Kashi and photojournalism

I went to an amazing talk by Ed Kashi, a well-known American photojournalist. He came to a) promote socialdocumentary.net and b) show some of his latest work.

The website socialdocumentary.net is designed to be a low-cost online exhibition for photography that emphasizes social problems around the global. Anyone can submit their photography. Kashi said that he was honored to have his work appear in prestigious publications like the National Geographic but it wasn't good enough for him. That's why he helped start the website.

Kashi also showed us some of his work. He uses a Canon 5D Mark II, which allows him to also record video. Kashi is well-known for being one of the first photographers to pioneer multi-media photojournalism. The first piece was about oil and poverty in Nigeria. Despite the millions of dollars being made by oil companies in Nigeria, the people there still have no running water or electricity. In the 1990s, Ken Saro-Wiwa led a non-violent protest against oil companies. He was found dead, hung. Now the Nigerians are arming themselves and trying to chase the oil companies away.

Kashi spoke of a terrifying experience when he was captured by the Nigerian military. An unspoken rule of photojournalism is that you don't photograph the Nigerian military. The boat guide Kashi hired lied and told him that the buildings he was photographing were not military. Then the military showed up and hauled him away. Fortunately, he had his cell phone with him, there was reception, and he managed to make one phone call back to the US. Since Americans (journalists, National Geographic, his wife) were aware of his situation, he was released within the week. Of course, he had no idea how long he would be detained. It could have been years. Kashi remarked that at least, in Nigeria, he didn't have to worry about suicide bombers. Nigerians only want your money. They don't trust outsiders, so even if you say that you are a photojournalist, they still want to be paid.

The second project Kashi showed was a piece on rapid modernization of India. The traditional energy sources are not enough to sustain growth in India and China. Yet, they have the right to first world conveniences like cars, refrigerators, air conditioning, etc. Kashi presented a short video clip of the Tata auto company taking over some land in rural India to build a car factory. The villagers claimed that their land was taken from them unfairly.

The third project Kashi showed us was about the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East. Even though most outsiders think that all Middle Easterners are Muslim, there used to be a large Christian population there. In fact, the Christians and Muslims lived in peace for a long time. Kashi told us that everywhere he went, the Christians said the same thing, "Every time you [outsiders] do something stupid like the infidel cartoon, the Muslims take it out on us." Now, most of the Christians are leaving the Middle East, leaving behind a very small, aging group.

I knew that photojournalism can be dangerous, but it was fascinating to hear it first-person. One of Kashi's most memorable photographs is a woman walking through her village, holding a colorful Shell (yes, the oil company!) umbrella. She's stepping over oil pipes that are running through her village. Kashi told us that even though the photograph looked peaceful, there were all sorts of things going on around him. People would yell at him "hey, white man, what are you doing?". After taking that particular photo, some people drove up in a car and told him to get in. Kashi had just been released from detention five days earlier and he went into a frenzy, screaming "No f***ing way!" Not all experiences are so intense. Kashi talked about trying to photograph a Christian family leaving the Middle East. It was a lot of work just to get a family to agree. Then he showed up at the house to find them packing. It was so "visually boring" and he didn't know what to do. Suddenly, one of the children crawled into a suitcase and curled up on the lid. Kashi snapped the photo, relieved. "It was like the photo gods smiled on me."

I was especially struck by one of Kashi's statements (paraphrased from my memory):
I'm so glad I grew up in America. People carry so much baggage. People all over the world are victimized by their history.
Nigerians hate white people for exploiting them for their oil. Koreans hate the Japanese for invading their country and raping their women during World War II. Then there's Palestine and Israel. It goes on and on. As much as we complain about America, there is something to be said for having a place where you can literally throw away your baggage.

Aside from his work, Kashi offered his views on the digital revolution. He said that the availability of information was a wonderful thing, but that compensation was a huge problem. He was having a hard time getting paid for his projects, and even self-financed them sometimes or had his wife to some of the video editing. Kashi said that we still need reporters and photographers to physically go gather information, interview people, or else a fundamental support for democracy will be lost. Something to think about.

01 November 2009

Link of the day: The Pomodoro Technique

I can't remember where I found out about this technique (Lifehacker?), but the Pomodoro Technique seems like a very nice time management system. It was invented by Italian Francesco Cirillo, but his book on the system was only translated into English two years ago. From my speed reading of the text, the system has been tested with real subjects and shown to be effective. The main idea is to quantize time into 25-min chunks. During each chunk or "pomodoro", one focuses on a single task. The word pomodoro is Italian for tomato and comes from the fact that the first timer the author used was made to look like a tomato. The goal is to finish a certain number of pomodoros each day, say 8. I haven't tried the system, but the system seems to make time more manageable because you only have to keep track of 8 pomodoros instead of worrying about how much time you spent on each task, or losing sense of time and spending wrong amount time on a task (or worse wasting time on an unplanned activity). Cirillo claims that quantization changes our perception of time (which we normally think of as a continuum) and allows us to relax and focus on our work.

30 October 2009

Link of the day: "Quitting the Paint Factory" by Mark Slouka

I enjoyed the essay "Quitting the Paint Factory" by Mark Slouka. Apparently, it was originally published in Harper's Magazine in 2004. Thanks to Gina Trapani for pointing it out in her original post. I think the main essence of the essay is captured by this quote (and Trapani agrees with me, I think):
Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, requisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due. Which is precisely what makes idleness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had "too much time on our hands." They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other, when we were up to something, "Quick, look busy."

28 October 2009

Dave Pritchard on physics education

I've always found the topic of teaching and learning fascinating. Yesterday, I went to a talk by Professor David Pritchard of MIT. He helped develop the Mastering Physics software that is used in many American universities today. Back in the early 2000s, it wasn't called Mastering Physics, rather it was Cyber Tutor and piloted in the MIT freshman physics classes. I took notes during Prof. Pritchard's talk.
  • Students spend the most time and learn most from homework (education experts and parents agree on this point!). However, homework is the bottom priority for most professors.
  • Cyber Tutor acts like an expert physics tutor. Prof. Pritchard showed statistical data that proves the software is as effective as a real-person tutor. If a student is completely lost on a problem, he or she can ask for a hint. If a student answers incorrectly, the software can provide feedback such as "check your units."
  • A goal of software like Cyber Tutor is to teach students multiple representations of information and multiple approaches to solving problems. Experts know all of this, but they usually don't communicate this knowledge. Rather, they focus on the one fastest way to the answer.
  • Cyber Tutor can track learning trajectories. Each action can be logged: FA = first attempt, SA = second attempt, NF = no feedback to wrong answer, F = feedback to specific error, H = hint, S = subtasks, FS = failed subtasks. An example trajectory would be H → FA → F → SA.
  • The software is a treasure trove for data mining. In addition to assessing a student's skill, data can also be used to fix badly written problems.
  • Prof. Pritchard posted his "cheaters never prosper" plot. I didn't understand any of the statistics terminology, but the graph proved that students who copy the most do the worst on the exams. The cheaters are detected with the following criteria -- 1) Response is under one minute, 2) Response is correct.
  • Interestingly, copying had very little effect on conceptual learning. This is probably due to the fact that class attendance was required and the majority of class time was spent on conceptual learning. Of course, copying had a huge negative effect on analytical learning.
  • In another example of how detailed data mining can get, Prof. Pritchard showed a plot of percentage of homework completed vs time before homework's due date. As one would expect, the copiers did very little work until close to the deadline.
  • Men cheated more than women, and business majors cheated more than other majors. I didn't get the exact statistics unfortunately.
  • Conclusion: It is clear that copying has a large negative effect on learning outcomes. Therefore, professors should discourage copying. This has in fact happened at MIT, partly through eliminating second semester pass/no record grading.
  • The last part of the talk was called "what should we teach?" Unfortunately, I had to leave and go to another talk, so I didn't find out the answer.

26 October 2009

Why the New York subway has no recycling bins

I was wondering why the New York subway had no recycling bins, so I wrote to the MTA and asked. This was their response.
Response (Melissa Glasgow) - 10/26/2009 01:34 PM
This is in response to your recent e-mail to MTA New York City Transit suggesting recycling bins in the subway system.

We appreciate your interest in improving mass transit. You may be interested to know that all subway refuse is recycled on a post-collection basis. This method of post-collection recycling achieves the aim of totally recycled refuse from the subway system at a moderate cost, and eliminates the need for recycling receptacles in stations. Nevertheless, your suggestion has been referred to supervision in our Department of Subways for review.

If you have any further suggestions, you may contact Customer Services at (718) 330-3322, from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., daily, or write to Customer Services at 2 Broadway, Room A11.146, New York, NY 10004.

We take the concerns of our customers very seriously and thank you for having taken the time to contact us.

Pedro M. Mojica
Associate Transit Customer Service Specialist
Know before you go, use Trip Planner
www.tripplanner.mta.info

25 October 2009

Japanese kanji vs Chinese characters

I was going through my receipts from Tokyo tonight. I found this mysterious receipt from 領収証書 which had a line item for 70円普通切手. I couldn't figure out what this 切手 was. It means "cut hand" in Chinese, but thanks to my new Besta CD-863 electronic dictionary with 13 languages, I eventually figured out that 切手 means postage stamp in Japanese!

22 October 2009

Link of the day: Lifehacker on encrypting your data

The post is from 3 years ago, but the instructions are still good. I just encrypted all my personal info, following the instructions in the post. If you have sensitive data on your computer like passwords, serial numbers, addresses, etc, do yourself a favor and encrypt it. If only people had encrypted those stolen laptops with Social Security numbers on them...

21 October 2009

Link of the day: Our internet traffic goes through just a few hands

According to Wired, most of our internet traffic now goes through limited hands, including Google.

Photography tip: Use an ExpoDisc to set white balance on your point-and-shoot camera

One of the ubiquitous hassles in digital photography is achieving the correct white balance. I bought an ExpoDisc originally to do quick white balancing for my hockey dSLR shots.

A few months later, I was getting sick and tired of crappy white balance on my point-and-shoot camera (a Canon SD870 IS Powershot). I tried a gray card but it didn't work at all. Then I decided to put the ExpoDisc over the camera lens and use that to set white balance, using the camera's custom white balance function. Lo and behold -- perfect white balance!

What I learned:
  • You use the ExpoDisc to do white balancing for both dSLR and point-and-shoot cameras. All you need is the ability to set up a custom white balance profile in your particular point-and-shoot camera.
  • Getting the white balance correct is especially crucial for point-and-shoots since most point-and-shoot cameras can only save photos in JPEG and not RAW. It is very difficult to adjust the white balance in a JPEG.
  • Since the lens of the point-and-shoot camera is so small, you can use the smallest and cheapest ExpoDisc (52 mm filter size).
  • Unless you have special needs, use the neutral ExpoDisc.
  • The ExpoDisc is so small and light that you can bring it anywhere. Plus, it's much more durable than a gray card. Not quite as small as a gray card, but that's no big deal unless you're one of those people who likes to count grams.

20 October 2009

My favorite LaTeX font

My favorite LaTeX font is the so-called "palatino." Apparently, it's not really palatino, but a clone. Still, I use it on CVs and resumes to impress people. I especially love the "old style" numbers where the "6" and "8" are shifted up. It's hard to find information about this font. The only substantive page I found was from the LaTeX font catalogue.

02 August 2009

What I learned at EOS Discovery Day that I didn't already know

  • Composition
    • Try shifting your perspective. For example, climb on top of your car.
  • Exposure
    • There is a well-known rule-of-thumb that the minimal safe shutter speed is about 1/focal length of the lens you're using. I asked if one should use the true lens focal length or the effective focal length due to the crop factor. Rick Berk, a Canon rep, said that it depends on who you ask. I suppose to be safe, one could use whatever number is lowest.
    • For the power switch on the Canon EOS 40D/50D, the middle setting locks camera exposure.
    • Typically, one uses evaluative and spot metering the most.
    • Each segment on the histogram represents approximately one f-stop.
  • Autofocus
    • Don't use AI Focus AF. This mode switches between One Shot AF and AI Servo AF depending on the subject's movement. But it's too slow.
    • Autofocus fails for low contrast subjects (e.g. sky), low light, back-lit subjects, and textures.
    • If two or more AF points light up at the same time, that means they are the same distance from the camera (only occurs in auto AF mode).
    • Auto AF point selection mode focuses on the nearest subject. This may or may not be what you want.
    • To take a photo of a group, focus 1/3 of the way into the group and use an aperture of f/8-f/11.
    • Custom function "AF point selection method" can be set so you can instantly change AF points without first pressing the AF Point Select button.
    • Try focusing close to blur the background.
  • Flash
    • Try both flash and no flash in the same shooting situation.
    • Direct flash makes people look fatter, bounce flash makes people look skinnier.
    • For sharp action pictures with flash in manual exposure mode:
      • Set a fast shutter speed (1/200 or 1/250 sec depending on camera model).
      • Set a medium range aperture (f/5.6, f/8; possibly wider if you need to reach farther away).
      • Set a moderate ISO , such as 200 or 400 (higher if you need to reach farther away, lower if you're in an extremely brightly-lit area).
      • Ignore the camera's metering scale -- it's telling you that the ambient light will be under-exposed (black background) which is okay.
    • How to avoid red eye
      • Move closer to the subject.
      • Bounce the flash.
      • Increase the level of ambient light
      • Have the subjects look away from the camera.
      • Move the flash off camera.
    • Usually, TTL does a very good job at exposure.
  • White balance
    • Auto white balance is a good starting point.
    • The fluorescent white balance setting is not very good for CFL style fluorescent bulbs (spiral shape).
  • Live View
    • Live View is designed to be used on a tripod.
    • Live View is very useful for macro photography.
    • The best feature of Live View is magnifying your images to 5x or 10x. This allows you to easily check your focus.
  • Digital management
    • Even if you set your picture style to black-and-white, you can still extract the color from the RAW image (but the JPEG).
    • If you forget to download images before you formatted your memory card, you can still recover the images by using data recovery software. Just don't shoot any new images on that card!
    • A 4 GB memory card contains about the same amount of information as will fit on a DVD.
    • The faithful picture style is good for brochures.
    • If you turn on long exposure noise reduction, the processing time is equal to the exposure time, i.e. it wil take twice as long to take the photo.
    • Two types of noise: chromic and luminous.
  • Miscellaneous
    • There is a depth-of-field preview button near lens mount.
    • The proper way to do diopter adjustment: Remove the lens from the camera. Turn the diopter adjustment wheel until the etched lines of the AF points are sharp.
    • Use a freezer zip lock bag to protect your manual. My manual got wet in a rain storm.

Canon SD870 IS little-known features

  • If you press "display" while in playback mode, you can see a histogram and "blinkies" for overblown highlights.
  • There is a panning mode for the image stabilizer.
  • There is a slow synchro flash mode.
  • Holding the shutter button halfway and pressing the macro/landscape button locks autofocus (AFL).
  • Holding the shutter button halfway and pressing the ISO button locks exposure (AEL).
  • You can register the useless print button to a useful function like exposure compensation.
  • It's possible to set custom white balance. I tried the Expodisc with the camera and it worked! You just have to hold the Expodisc over the lens, which is a bit awkward but not too bad.
I didn't realize it but many of the Canon dSLR features (e.g. histogram, AEL, AFL, custom white balance) are built into this little Powershot camera! I just didn't know about these advanced features until I started doing SLR photography.

30 July 2009

Beware of the inactive email security loophole

This article on TechCrunch details how the personal accounts of Twitter employees were hacked. The moral of the story is that when it comes to security, you are as week as your weakest link.

After reading the article, I searched all my email accounts for passwords. It's really stupid how companies will send you confirmation of your password in cleartext over email.
Lifehacker followed up with an explanation of how inactive email accounts on Hotmail can easily be hacked into. The problem is that Hotmail accounts are recycled. Gmail and Yahoo are no better. The lesson to take away is that if you use an email account for passing sensitive information, you should log into it periodically so that you don't lose the account.

Social sports

I was reading a New York Times article which mentioned a multiple-sport complex in Brooklyn called Aviator Sports. The Aviator Sports website had a link to dodgeball and I started searching for dodgeball which brought me to the New York Social Sports Club. They offer kickball, inner-tube water polo, broomball, and ultimate in addition to dodgeball. It sounds like an awesome concept. Playground sports and drinking/hanging-out afterwards. I wish there was something like that around where I live.

09 July 2009

Link of the day: Yahoo search pad

This looks like a fantastic way to compile research and share it with others, especially for travel plans. To see what I mean, check out the demo video. Great job, Yahoo.

02 July 2009

Link of the day: Photographic eye

I went to Allan Weitz's talk called "As Seen Through the Lens" and he mentioned that he's a frequent contributor to the B&H newsletter. There, I found a great article he wrote called "The Photographic Eye". The article explores the idea of the human eye as a "digital camera." What would be the focal length, f-stop, etc of such a "human eye" camera?

25 June 2009

Sports photography

I had the opportunity to photograph my hockey team at a tournament this past April. I haven't had time to really look through my thousands of photos or edit them, but here are a few I liked. My teammates are in the white jerseys.

To me, this photo shows the rough and tumble nature of hockey. It's kind of funny that the girl in pink gloves looks so nonchalant.



This is a pretty classic action photo. My teammate is skating up the ice with the puck in a commanding stride.



A nice defensive shot. I'm happy I got the puck in the photo. The capture really shows how quick your reflexes neat to be, when playing hockey.



A decent photo, but probably not my best.



This is a great shot because you can see my teammate's face so clearly. Too bad I didn't get the puck in the photo.



I really like this shot because I didn't expect to get it. I was shooting with a 135 mm fixed focal length lens. The action was too close for me to take any photos involving the puck. So I fooled around and looked around the defensive zone. I caught my teammate having a "friendly chat" with an opponent.



Again, this photo is the result of having the long focal length lens. I was limited in terms of what I could shoot, which turned out to be a blessing. Since I couldn't really shoot whole players with the puck, I focused on faces.



I really love this photo. Some people might say that it's not perfect because the player's face is partially obscured by the referee's arm. However, I think it's okay because it isolates the eyes, which you can still see!



I so so wanted a photo of a player shooting the puck. This is my best shot. The blur on the bottom part of the stick is great because it conveys a sense of motion. Unfortunately, the puck is hard to see because it's black and the stick tape is also black. I can't really go to my teammates and tell them, "please tape all your sticks white for me, so I can see the puck on my shooting action photos."

24 June 2009

Dragon Quest vs Final Fantasy

I just finished playing Dragon Quest V on my Nintendo DS. It was my first Dragon Quest game. What a great plot and nice graphics. I like how the visuals are the throwback 2D style, with a bit of 3D flair.

This got me thinking about Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, the two most famous video game franchises in Japan (beside the Nintendo characters). I've played Final Fantasy I, IV, VI, and VII.

Both series are RPGs with a long history. Dragon Quest IX and Final Fantasy XIII will probably be released in the US next year. Dragon Quest sticks with a medieval setting for all its games (according to Wikipedia) whereas Final Fantasy has moved towards a more sci-fi/modern setting. I also get the feeling that Dragon Quest tries to be charming and funny whereas Final Fantasy attempts to be dramatic. The Dragon Quest mascot, the slime, is really cute and I find the slime knight hilarious. I loved the Monkey Island series, so funny works well with me.

Dragon Quest games have a reputation for being similar just like the Zelda games. I once asked my friend, a huge Zelda fan, "Don't you get bored of the same hero and villain in every game?" He said no. I appreciate the fact that the Final Fantasy designers try to make each game different.

Dragon Quest has been slow to adopt 3D graphics. In fact, Dragon Quest VIII (2004) was the first 3D game in the series whereas Final Fantasy VII already conquered that medium in 1997. People think Final Fantasy's cutting-edge graphics make it more marketable to the North American audience and explain why Dragon Quest is much less popular in American compared to Final Fantasy.

The Dragon Quest designers seem to realize that they can't compete with Final Fantasy, so they need to differentiate themselves. That appears to be the motivation behind moving the next Dragon Quest games to the Nintendo DS and Wii platforms -- which are graphically less powerful but more popular with the mainstream, non-gamer audience.

So far, I like both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. If only I had more time to go on these 50 hour virtual adventures!

23 June 2009

Link of the day: "On the value of hard focus"

I like the idea that concentration is a muscle you can develop and exercise. Cal Newport talks about it in his latest post "On the value of hard focus."

22 June 2009

Song of the day: "The mirror-blue night" by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater

From the musical Spring Awakening
BOYS
Flip on a switch, and everything’s fine –
No more lips, no more tongue, no more ears, no more eyes
The naked blue angel, who peers through the blinds
Disappears in the gloom of the mirror-blue night

MELCHIOR
But there’s nowhere to hide from these bones, from my mind
It’s broken inside – I’m a man and a child
I’m at home with a ghost, who got left in the cold
Who knocks at my peace, with no keys to my soul

BOYS
And the whispers of fear, the chill up the spine
Will steal away too, with a flick of the light
The minute you do it, with fingers so blind
You remove every bit of the blue from your mind

MELCHIOR
But there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost in my mind
It’s cold in these bones – of a man and a child
And there’s no one who knows, and there’s nowhere to go
There’s no one to see who can see to my soul

21 June 2009

Song of the day: "All that's known" by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater

Whereas Wendla's song "Mama who bore me" revealed the disappointment she harbored towards her mother for not teaching her what she wanted to know, Melchior prefers to rebel against authority in "All that's known."

From the musical Spring Awakening
All that's known
In History, in Science
Overthrown
At school, at home, by blind men

You doubt them
And soon they bark and hound you-
Till everything you say is just another bad about you

All they say
Is "Trust in What is Written"
Wars are made
And somehow that is wisdom

Thought is suspect
And money is their idol
And nothing is okay unless it's scripted in their Bible

But I know
There's so much more to find-
Just in looking through myself
And not at them

Still, I know
To trust my own true mind
And to say: there's a way through this

On I go
To wonder and to learning
Name the stars and know their dark returning

I'm calling
To know the world's true yearning-
The hunger that a child feels for everything they're shown

You watch me-
Just watch me-
I'm calling
And one day all will know

You watch me-
Just watch me-
I'm calling, I'm calling.
And one day all will know

20 June 2009

Link of the day: The ghost telecommuter

Everyone knows about telecommuting, but this guy takes the next step. He syncs his home desktop monitor with his cube monitor. He sets up a webcam and speakers in the cube as well. Co-workers can go into the cube, talk to him, and look at what he's doing on his monitor as if they were working with his ghost!

Song of the day: "Mama who bore me" by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater

My friend introduced me to Spring Awakening. I was skeptical of the premise -- 19th century German schoolchildren singing rock/alternative. After a few listens, I like it. The musical explores adolescent angst with wit, intelligence, and catchy music to boot.

"Mama who bore me" is the opening number.

From the musical Spring Awakening
Mama who bore me
Mama who gave me
No way to handle things
Who made me so sad

Mama, the weeping
Mama, the angels
No sleep in Heaven, or Bethlehem

Some pray that one day
Christ will come a'-callin'
They light a candle
And hope that it glows
And some just lie there
Crying for him to come and find them
But when he comes they don't know how to go

Mama who bore me
Mama who gave me
No way to handle things
Who made me so bad

Mama, the weeping
Mama, the angels
No sleep in Heaven, or Bethlehem

15 June 2009

Link of the day: High speed rail link planned in California

I've always loved traveling by train. If only the rest of America knew the joys of train travel. I was excited to read the following New York Times magazine article about a high speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

21 May 2009

Link of the day: "The Web Browser Address Bar is the New Command Line"

The title of the post pretty much says it: "The Web Browser Address Bar is the New Command Line." By the way, I love the command line. It's fast and succinct. The only problem I can think of is that the command line relies on a good memory. If I don't use commands after a while, I forget them. When you add the shell to the command line, you get Unix magic!

The post mentions the site yubnub which really is the embodiment of the address bar as command line. I've tried yubnub but for some reason, I've never really felt a need for it.

13 May 2009

Link of the day: The story of stuff by Annie Leonard

This animated short about consumer culture is simplified, but quite interesting. Of course, it bashes how materialistic America has become. The main message is that we're trapped in a vicious cycle where we work too much, watch TV to console ourselves, then the TV reminds us how inadequate our possessions are, we buy stuff, and then we have to work more to pay for it. And we pollute the earth pursuing our materialism. The video would work well for a high school class.

08 May 2009

Song of the day: "Taylor the Latte Boy" by "Taylor the Latte Boy" by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich

I became acquainted with this song after seeing the YouTube performance by Kristin Chenoweth. At first, I thought it was a ridiculously sappy song (search on YouTube for "taylor the latte boy rebuttal"), but after a while, I grew to enjoy it. The lyrics have a nice conversational quality and the music is mostly in my range, so I can actually sing it. By the way, Kristin's performance is fantastic. If it weren't for her performance, I would have dismissed this song right away. If you sing the song, you can substitute your own name for "Kristin."
There's a boy who works at Starbucks
Who is very inspirational.
He is very inspirational because of many things.

I come in at 8:11, and he smiles and says, "How are you?"
When he smiles and says, "How are you?"
I could swear my heart grows wings!

So today at 8:11
I decided I should meet him
I decided I should meet him
In a proper formal way.

So today at 8:11 when he smiled and said "How are you?"
I said "Fine and my name's Kristin"
And he softly answered, "Hey."

And I said "my name is Kristin, and thank you for the extra foam"
And he said his name was Taylor,
Which provides the inspiration for this poem:

Taylor the latte boy,
Bring me java, bring me joy!
Oh, Taylor the latte boy,
I love him, I love him, I love him...

Well I'd like to get my nerve up
To recite my poem musical
He would like the fact it's musical
Because he plays guitar.
And today at 8:11, Taylor told me he was playing
In a band down in the village in the basement of a bar.

And he smoothly flipped the lever to prepare my double latte,
But for me he made it triple! (And he didn't think I knew)
But I saw him flip the lever, and for me he made it triple,
And I knew the triple latte meant that Taylor loved me too!
I said, "What time are you playing? And thank you for the extra skim..."
He said, "Keep the $3.55," because this triple latte was on him.

Taylor the latte boy,
Bring me java, bring me joy!
Oh, Taylor the latte boy,
I love him, I love him, I love him...

I used to be the kind of girl
Who'd run when love rushed toward her.
Till finally a voice whispered, "Love can be yours,
If you step up to the counter and order."

Taylor the latte boy,
Bring me java, bring me joy!
Oh, Taylor the latte boy,
I love him, I love him, I love him...

So many years my heart has waited,
Who'd have thought that love could be so caffeinated?

Taylor the latte boy,
I love him, I love him, I love him.
I love him, I love him, I love him.

07 May 2009

Song of the day: "Down to the river to pray" performed by Alison Krauss

A sweet and beautiful song. I first heard this song in the film O Brother Where Art Thou?.
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O sisters let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down,
O sisters let's go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O brothers let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down,
Come on brothers let's go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O fathers let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down,
O fathers let's go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O mothers let's go down,
Let's go down, don't you want to go down,
Come on mothers let's go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O sinners let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down,
O sinners let's go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

06 May 2009

Song of the day: "(I've Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo" by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren

Another classic performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H
I got a gal in Kalamazoo
Don’t want to boast but I know she’s the toast of Kalamazoo
(Zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo)

Years have gone by, my my how she grew
I liked her looks when I carried her books in Kalamazoo
(Zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo)

I’m gonna send away, hoppin’ on a plane, leavin’ today
Am I dreamin’? I can hear her screamin’
"Hiya, Mr. Jackson"
Everything’s OK, A-L-A-M-A-Z-O

Oh, what a gal, a real pipperoo
I’ll make my bid for that freckle-faced kid I’m hurryin’ to
I’m goin’ to Michigan to see the sweetest gal in Kalamazoo
(Zoo, zoo)
(Zoo, zoo, zoo, Kalamazoo)
K (K)
A (A)
L-A-M-A-Z-O
(Oh, oh, oh, oh what a gal, a real pipperoo)
(We’re goin’ to Michigan to see the sweetest gal in Kalamazoo)
(Zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo)
(Kalamazoo!!)

05 May 2009

Song of the day: "Chattanooga choo choo" by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren

Continuing my classic song series... this song was made famous by the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Pardon me, boy
Is that the Chattanooga choo choo?
Track twenty-nine
Boy, you can gimme a shine
I can afford
To board a Chattanooga choo choo
I've got my fare
And just a trifle to spare

You leave the Pennsylvania Station 'bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner
Nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham an' eggs in Carolina

When you hear the whistle blowin' eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in
Gotta keep it rollin'
Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are

There's gonna be
A certain party at the station
Satin and lace
I used to call "funny face"
She's gonna cry
Until I tell her that I'll never roam
So Chattanooga choo choo
Won't you choo-choo me home?
Chattanooga choo choo
Won't you choo-choo me home?

04 May 2009

Song of the day: "Night and day" by Cole Porter

Another old favorite of mine to sing. It suits my voice really well.
Like the beat beat beat of the tom-tom
When the jungle shadows fall
Like the tick tick tock of the stately clock
As it stands against the wall

Like the drip drip drip of the raindrops
When the summer shower is through
So a voice within me keeps repeating
You, you, you

Night and day, you are the one
Only you beneath the moon or under the sun
Whether near to me, or far
It's no matter darling where you are
I think of you
Day and night, night and day, why is it so

That this longing for you follows wherever I go
In the roaring traffic's boom
In the silence of my lonely room
I think of you
Day and night, night and day

Under the hide of me
There's an oh such a hungry yearning burning inside of me
And this torment won't be through
Until you let me spend my life making love to you
Day and night, night and day

03 May 2009

Song of the day: "I'm putting all my eggs in one basket" by Irving Berlin

I noticed that I hadn't posted a few of my favorite song lyrics on my blog! This is an old favorite of mine to sing.
I've been a roaming Romeo
My Juliets have been many
But now my roaming days have gone
Too many irons in the fire
Is worse than not having any
I've had my share and from now on:

I'm putting all my eggs in one basket
I'm betting ev'rything I've got on you

I'm giving all my love to one baby
Heaven help me if my baby don't come through

I've got a great big amount
Saved up in my love account
Honey
And I've decided
Love divided
In two
Won't do

So
I'm putting all my eggs in one basket
I'm betting everything I've got on you

Link of the day: How to declutter your Facebook homepage

An essential link for heavy Facebook users -- "How to De-Clutter Your New Facebook Homepage." I didn't know about the feed preferences page. There's a person who posts updates that I'm not interested in, but I don't want to hurt the person's feelings by de-friending him. So I went to the feed preferences page and put him in my "less about these friends" list.

23 April 2009

New photography equipment

Wow, I haven't written here in almost a month! Between traveling and learning photography, I've been crazy busy. But now I have some down time, expect a flurry of cool posts coming up.

I bought my first digital SLR camera on March 11!!!!! It's a Canon EOS 40D, a semi-pro camera. I got it for the fast frame rate -- 6 frames per second, so I could shoot sports like hockey.


Yeah, so I said I wasn't going to spend money on photography because it was too expensive, but I ended up getting injured and missing two months of the hockey season. Plus, I got talking to my cousin -- the pro photographer. And thus I was swayed into spending ridiculous amounts of money.

Along with the Canon camera, I got a Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 lens.


Here is the lens with the hood.



The catch is that you don't just buy a camera and lenses. You need tons of accessories. Here is the full list of accessories I got.

Three Sandisk Extreme III 4 GB cards (fast enough for 6 frames per second)
Katz Eye Focusing Screen (for the rule of thirds grid)
Canon BP-511A battery (spare battery, which I've never had to use)
Phottix Cleon II wireless remote shutter (nice cheap device from Hong Kong)
Tiffen UV filter 67mm (for the Tamron lens)
Expodisc 77mm (for white balance in hockey rinks)
Op-tech pro neck strap (much better than the included neck strap)
Op-tech SLR wrist strap (for when I want to shoot vertically without the strap getting in the way)

Epson P-3000 (for viewing photos and backing them up)
Fujitsu 120 GB IDE hard drive (to upgrade from the Epson's 40 GB capacity)

Giotto LCD glass protector (expensive, but much better than putting plastic over your main LCD)
Invisible shield for Canon EOS 40D (to protect the top LCD)
Invisible shield for Epson P-3000
Lens cleaning stuff

Lowepro Fastpack 250 (my heavy duty camera pack)
Kata Sensitivity V (my light camera pack)
Cordura waterproof pack cover (in case of rain)

30 March 2009

Kristin Chenoweth on success

I've suffered greatly from a lack of female role models in my life, not just because I happen to work in technical fields. I notice that I used to idolize older men, both in media and personal life. I liked older British actors, in particular, like Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, and Alec Guinness. In real life, it was male teachers as father figures and mentors.

Now that I'm out of college, no longer under the pressure of constant deadlines, I take in a lot more pop culture. I find myself gravitating to young female actresses as role models. (Sadly, I just haven't found many female physicists that I connect with.) I admire Sarah Michelle Gellar (Prinze) of "Buffy" fame and more recently, Broadway actress-singer Kristin Chenoweth. They seem hard-working, grounded, and ambitious.

I enjoyed this New York Times interview with Chenoweth from 2006. A few choice bits:
She drew further criticism when she appeared in a parade of tiny bikinis in the March 2006 issue of FHM... “I’m a young woman, I like men, I’m not going to pretend to be what I’m not,” she said. “Anyway, I’ve finally graduated from the college of I Don’t Give a Hoot.” But “hoot” was not her first choice of words.
Go Kristin! I'm finally starting to get this concept but I have a lot of work to do.
“Last night,” she said, “it was this line from ‘The Apple Tree’: ‘The Really Real Acting Academy has shown me that all my films, alas, are naught but tinkling trivia, sugary, shoddy, shallow shadows. Schlock.’ How am I going to say that? How am I going to make that funny? It’s so frustrating because people say, ‘It comes so easily to her,’ or ‘She’s just playing herself.’ Well, I work my butt off. These ideas don’t come from nowhere. You have to think them up. Sometimes I think until I think my head might explode.”
I don't understand why so many Americans think that success comes easily. There is technique and practice behind everything, whether it's sports, acting, or science.
“I BeDazzle everything,” she said. “It’s a sickness.”
Apparently, Chenoweth applies stick-on rhinestones to everything. I just threw that quote in, for amusement.
“People could be so awful,” she said. “I remember once I was in the bathroom, and this basketball player girl came in and said, ‘I just want to punch you out.’ When I said, ‘How come?’ she said: ‘Because you’re happy all the time.’ And I said: ‘You know what? I’m not happy all the time. I’m human. And I’d really like to leave the bathroom now.’ That’s when I realized: Oh my God, they’re mad at me because I’m talented. Because I do something they don’t do. But they have their gifts. Why do they envy mine?” Ms. Chenoweth said she now resolves this sort of thing by cutting off contact “the minute something goes awry with me and another female.”
I don't understand why people can be so cruel. And I completely understand the statement about female drama. A female friend of mine recently told me that she wanted to only work in labs dominated by men. She had had horrible experiences with the other women in her lab.
She had experienced that star-making moment when alienation and empathy, both formerly experienced as painful, fuse into ecstatic pleasure and thus a lifelong mission. You are lifted up but also away. “I hate to say it made me a loner,” Ms. Chenoweth said, “but I did learn that there’s nobody else to rely on but you.”
I haven't become famous or successful, but I already feel like working in any competitive, creative field makes you somewhat of a loner. Creativity requires long trains of deliberation and solitude, honing your craft.

Song of the day: "The Girl in 14G" by Jeanine Scanlon and Dick Tesori

I'm on a huge Kristin Chenoweth kick. She's amazing. Cute, charming, beautiful, gorgeous voice... who can ask for anything more? I've never seen anyone's charisma just pop out of the screen like that. She looks radiant in every photo taken of her, as if she was born in the spotlight. Check out her hilarious performance of "The Girl in 14G" with the Boston Pops.
I just moved in to 14G
So cozy, calm, and peaceful
Heaven for a mouse like me
With quiet by the lease-full
Pets are banned parties too
And no solicitations
Window seat with garden view
A perfect nook to read a book
I'm lost in my Jane Austen when I hear

[Dramatic opera]

Say it isnt so
Not the flat below
From an opera wanna be
In 13G
A matinee of Socantota
Wagner's Ring
And Traviata

[Dramatic opera]

My first night in 14G
I'll put up with Puccini
Brew myself a cup of tea
Crochet until shes fini
Half past eight
Not a peep
Except the clock tick-tockin
Now I lay me down to sleep
A comfy bed to rest my head
A stretch, a yawn, I'm almost gone when

[Scatting noisily]

Now the girl upstairs
[Laughs]
Wakes me unawares
Blowing down from 15G
Her revelry
She's scattin' like her name is Ella
Guess who answers a cappella

[escalating transitions between scatting and opera]

Im not one to
Raise my voice
Make a fuss
Or speak my mind
But might I query
Would you mind if
Could you kindly

STOP!
That felt good
STOP!

13, 15, 14G
A most unlikely trio
No quite three part harmony

All day and night we're singing
[All three sing]

I've had my fill of peace and quiet
Shout out loud, "I've changed my diet!"
All because of
14G

17 March 2009

My apparently eccentric musical tastes

I've been using last.fm. It's a web service that you feed your musical listening data to and in return, you get recommended artists and stats. It's also a social networking service for music lovers. Today, I found out about the super-eclectic test which uses your last.fm data to calculate how eccentric your musical taste is.
Take your top 50 artists. For each of these artists, collect the top 20 similar artists (where the artist itself is the #1 most similar). The resulting number of unique artists is your super-eclectic score. You can compute your own score.

My super-eclectic score is currently 703/1000.

The most similar artists for my profile are 桜庭統 (8), Stephen Schwartz (7), Company (6), Hootie & the Blowfish (6), 崎元仁 (6), 植松伸夫 (5), Original Broadway Cast (5), Masaharu Iwata (5), 光田康典 (5), Andrew Lloyd Webber (5)
According to the test website: "People with scores over 700 have bragging rights. People whose score is below 400 should consider more musical styles!"

I'm not sure how accurate the test is since I've been on last.fm for less than a month. I tend to listen to the same music for a long time, then move on to another artist and listen to that person for a long time, etc...

16 March 2009

Quote of the day: Anders on the "perfect throw"

In a flashback before the nuclear bombing of the Twelve Colonies, Anders, a star professional athlete, is interviewed by a news reporter. She congratulates him on his Hall-of-Fame worthy career. Then she asks him about how he feels about the fact that he hasn't won a championship yet.
If you want to know the truth... I don't really care about the stats. Or the cup, or the trophy, or anything like that. Um, in fact, even the games aren't that important to me, not really. What matters to me is the perfect throw... making the perfect catch... the perfect stepping block. Perfection is what it's about. It's about those moments when... you can feel the perfection of creation. The beauty of physics, the wonder of mathematics. And all the relation of action and reaction. And that is the kind of perfection I want to be connected to.
- Samuel T. Anders, "Daybreak, Part I," Battlestar Galactica
I love this quote. It's beautiful. It encapsulates how I feel about life. The moments matter more to me than the end result.

I play hockey for that magical moment when I see the puck, I know I'm going to get it, I know what I'm going to do, and everything happens the way I planned without conscious thought.

I do physics for that moment when I'm working with a colleague and I'm overwhelmed by the spiritual experience of sharing such intellectual passion.

This is a tangent, but I thought I'd mention a special moment for me. Many of my undergraduate physics classes were taught by these brilliant particle theorists. I remember one day, sitting in class, tuning out the lecture and just marveling at the professor's genius, passion, and gifts of communication. But it wasn't just that one guy, there were four of them!

15 March 2009

Song of the day: "What is this feeling?" by Stephen Schwartz

This song is ironically funny. It starts off a bit like a stereotypical first love song but then you realize the song is about hate, not love. Very clever, I enjoyed it. I love the way Kristin Chenoweth sang/spoke "flushed."

From Wicked
GALINDA:
(spoken) Dearest darlingest Momsie and Popsicle:

ELPHABA:
(spoken) My dear Father:

BOTH:
There's been some confusion
Over rooming here at Shiz:

ELPHABA:
But of course, I'll care for Nessa:

GALINDA:
But of course, I'll rise above it:

BOTH:
For I know that's how you'd want me to respond
(Spoken:) Yes
There's been some confusion
For you see, my roommate is:

GALINDA:
Unusually and exceedingly peculiar
And altogether quite impossible to describe:

ELPHABA:
Blonde.

GALINDA:
What is this feeling,
So sudden and new?

ELPHABA:
I felt the moment
I laid eyes on you;

GALINDA:
My pulse is rushing;

ELPHABA:
My head is reeling;

GALINDA:
My face is flushing;

BOTH:
What is this feeling?
Fervid as a flame,
Does it have a name?
Yes! Loathing
Unadulterated loathing

GALINDA:
For your face;

ELPHABA:
Your voice;

GALINDA:
Your clothing;

BOTH:
Let's just say - I loathe it all
Ev'ry little trait, however small
Makes my very flesh begin to crawl
With simple utter loathing
There's a strange exhilaration
In such total detestation
It's so pure, so strong!
Though I do admit it came on fast
Still I do believe that it can last
And I will be loathing
Loathing you
My whole life long!

STUDENTS:
Dear Galinda, you are just too good
How do you stand it? I don't think I could!
She's a terror! She's a Tartar!
We don't mean to show a bias,
But Galinda, you're a martyr!

GALINDA:
Well; these things are sent to try us!

STUDENTS:
Poor Galinda, forced to reside
With someone so disgusticified
We just want to tell you:
We're all on your side!
We share your;

BOTH:
What is this feeling
So sudden and new?
I felt the moment I laid eyes on you
My pulse is rushing
My head is reeling
Oh, what is this feeling?
Does it have a name?
Yes
Ahhh

STUDENTS (BACKGROUND):
Loathing Unadulterated loathing
For her face, her voice, her clothing
Let's just say - we loathe it all
Ev'ry little trait however small
Makes our very flesh being to crawl
AHHH!

ALL:
Loathing!

STUDENTS:
Loathing

BOTH:
There's a strange exhilaration

STUDENTS:
Loathing

BOTH:
In such total detestation

STUDENTS:
Loathing

BOTH:
It's so pure, so strong

STUDENTS:
So strong!

BOTH:
Though I do admit it came on fast
Still I do believe that it can last
And I will be...

STUDENS (BACKGROUND):
Loathing...

BOTH:
Loathing
For forever...

STUDENTS (BACKGROUND):
Loathing...

BOTH:
Loathing,
Truly deeply loathing you
Loathing you
My whole life long!

STUDENTS:
Loathing
Unadulterated loathing

ELPHABA:
Boo!

GALINDA:
AH!

13 March 2009

Wicked review

Two days ago, I went to the Wednesday matinee showing of Wicked. The musical is loosely based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. Both the musical and the novel are a "revisionist" re-telling of the well-known Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, from the perspective of the witches. Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics, and Winnie Holzman did the book.

The plot feels like another Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer clone. The coming-of-age story, featuring a misunderstood, outsider protagonist, just never gets old or unpopular with the public. I went into the musical thinking I be jaded about another such story, but Wicked had enough charm and cleverness for me to enjoy it. The main characters Elphaba and Glinda were played by Nicole Parker and Alli Mauzey. They had just taken over from the previous actors and were quite good. The plot starts off pretty stereotypical. Elphaba is the sassy outcast with a chip on her shoulder and Glinda is the ditzy blonde who is obsessed with looks and popularity. However, there are some clever twists, mostly in how the story is connected with the familiar Wizard of Oz story. We find out how Elphaba became the "Wicked Witch of the West" and how the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow came to be. Elphaba utters the famous "there's no place like home" catchphrase for a little laugh.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the cleverly constructed plot doesn't have many real emotional moments. I never felt like I really got to know the characters. Plot developments moved too quickly and everything was resolved too neatly.

I'm also not taken with Schwartz's score. I liked the songs "No One Mourns the Wicked," "What is this Feeling?," and "Defying Gravity." The last song is my favorite and absolutely amazing on the original cast album with Idina Menzel. It cycles through so many emotions and ends on a soaring (literally) belt. But the rest of the songs seemed like pleasant, forgettable pop tunes. I don't appreciate pop scores in musicals. Composers should do better and write more sophisticated melodies. Parker and Mauzey sang well, but Parker doesn't have the belt required for a show-stopping Elphaba.

Some critics have accused Wicked of being overly commercialized. That is true to some extent. The set and costumes are eye-catching (and probably extremely expensive). The pop tunes and relatively conventional plot are designed to appeal to the general public. It's hard to say that Wicked offers any sophistication to the experienced theatre goer. However, most theatre lovers grew up on "popular" stuff. I started with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Miserables. These musicals are frequently panned for their over-commercialization, but hey it got me into musicals, right? Sadly, we will never go back to the days of Rodgers & Hammerstein where musicals were mainstream and sophisticated. (People forget that works like Oklahoma were revolutionary for their time.) It's hard to get the attention of kids today, so you need some glam and glitter. One could do worse that Wicked as an introduction to musicals.

12 March 2009

Song of the day: "Defying Gravity" by Stephen Schwartz

What an uplifting, defiant song! Imagine this with Idina Menzel's "larynx of steel" (according to New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley).

From Wicked
GLINDA:
(spoken)
Elphaba, why could't you have stayed calm for once, instead of flying off the handle!
I hope you're happy!
(sung)
I hope you're happy now!
I hope you're happy how you've hurt your cause forever,
I hope you think you're clever!

ELPHABA:
(spoken)
I hope you're happy!
I hope you're happy, too.
(sung)
I hope you're proud how you would grovel in submission to feed your own ambition.

BOTH:
(sung)
So though I can't imagine how, I hope you're happy, right now!

GLINDA:
(spoken)
Elphie, listen to me! Just, say you're sorry.
(sung)
You can still be with the Wizard, what you've worked and waited for. You can have all you ever wanted!

ELPHABA:
(spoken)
I know.
(sung)
And I don't want it.
(spoken)
No,
(sung)
I can't want it anymore.
Something has changed within me.
Something is not the same.
I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game.
Too late for second-guessing.
Too late to go back to sleep!
It's time to trust my instincts.
Close my eyes, and leap!
It's time to try defying gravity.
I think I'll try defying gravity, and you can't pull me down!

GLINDA:
(sung)
Can't I make you understand?
You're having delusions of grandeur!

ELPHABA:
(sung)
I'm through accepting limits,
'Cuz someone says they're so!
Some things I cannot change,
but 'till I try, I'll never know!
Too long I've been afraid of
Losing love, I guess I've lost!
Well, if that's love, it comes at much too high a cost!
I'd sooner buy defying gravity
Kiss me goodbye!
I'm defying gravity, and you can't pull me down!
(spoken)
Glinda, come with me. Think of what we could do. Together,
(sung)
Unlimited. Together we're unlimited. Together we'll be the greatest team there's ever been,
Glinda, things the way we plan 'em.

GLINDA:
(sung)
If we work in tandam:

BOTH:
(sung)
There's no fight we cannot win.
Just you and I defying gravity!
With you and I, defying gravity,

ELPHABA:
(sung)
They'll never bring us down.
(spoken)
Well, are you coming?

GLINDA:
(sung)
I hope you're happy, now that you're choosing this.

ELPHABA:
(spoken)
You too.
(sung)
I hope it brings you bliss,

BOTH:
(sung)
I really hope you get it,
And you don't live to regret it!
I hope you're happy in the end!
I hope you're happy, my friend!

ELPHABA:
(sung)
So if you care to find me
Look to the western sky!
As someone told me lately:
"Ev'ryone deserves the chance to fly!"
And if I'm flying solo,
At least I'm flying free.
To those who'd ground me,
Take a message back from me:
Tell them how I am
Defying gravity!
I'm flying high,
Defying gravity!
And soon I'll match them in renown.
And nobody in, all of Oz.
No Wizard that there is or was.
Is ever gonna bring me down!

GLINDA:
(sung)
I hope you're happy!

CITIZENS OF OZ:
(sung)
Look at her, she's wicked!
(shouted)
Get her!

ELPHABA:
(sung)
Bring me

CITIZENS OF OZ:
(sung)
No one mourns the wicked!

ELPHABA:
(sung)
down!

CITIZENS OF OZ:
(sung)
So we've got to bring her

ELPHABA:
(sung)
Aaahhhhhhh!

CITIZENS OF OZ:
(sung)
Down!

08 March 2009

Adventure games ain't dead!

I grew up in the "golden age" of adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Quest for Glory, and Legend of Kyrandia. This is definitely my favorite genre of games (followed closely by action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda and Prince of Persia).

Adventure gaming, in the commercial sense, is pretty much dead, though a few games have been released for the Nintendo DS such as the Phoenix Wright series and the upcoming Broken Sword remake.

However, I recently discovered the Adventure Game Studio (AGS). It's a user-friendly GUI editor for creating your own adventure games. It takes care of most of the programming, allowing game creators to focus on graphics and story. People have used it to create 992 games! I guess I know where to go now, if I'm really really bored...

I think AGS is wonderful for the gaming community. There are way too many first-person shooter, slasher type games (think: Halo and Grand Theft Auto) that mainly appeal to men. Adventure games are one of the few genres that appeal to both genders. With AGS, women can make games that appeal to them. For example, check out Cirque De Zale by Rebecca Clements. An interview with Clements can be found here.

04 March 2009

Song of the day: "Ballad of Booth" by Stephen Sondheim

I love the lilting style of the Balladeer and the folksy tune.

From the musical Assassins
BALLADEER:
Someone tell the story,
Someone sing the song.

Every now and then
The country
Goes a little wrong.

Every now and then
A madman's
Bound to come along.
Doesn't stop the story-
Story's pretty strong.
Doesn't change the song...

Johnny Booth was a handsome devil,
Got up in his rings and fancy silks.
Had him a temper but kept it level.
Everybody called him Wilkes.

Why did you do it, Johnny?
Nobody agrees.
You who had everything,
What made you bring
A nation to its knees?

Some say it was your voice had gone,
Some say it was booze.
Some say you killed a coutry, John,
Because of bad reviews.

Johnny lived with a grace and glitter.
Kind of like the lives he lived on stage.
Died in a barn in pain and bitter
Twenty-seven years of age.

Why did you do it, Johnny,
Throw it all away?
Why did you do it, boy,
Not just destroy
The pride and joy
Of Illinois,
But all the U.S.A.?

Your brother made you jealous, John,
You couldn't fill his shoes.
Was that the reason, tell us, John-
Along with bad reviews.

BOOTH:
Damn!

HEROLD:
They're coming! they'll be here any minute-

BOOTH:
I need your help.
I've got to write this and I can't hold the pen

HEROLD:
Johnny, they've found us!
We've got to get out of here!

BOOTH:
Not till I finish this.

HEROLD:
Johnny-

BOOTH:
No!
Have you seen these papers?
Do you know what they're calling me?!
A common cutthroat! A hired assassin!
This one says I'm mad!

HEROLD:
We must have been mad to think
that we could kill the president and get away with it!

BOOTH:
We did get away with it!
He was a bloody tyrant and we brought him down!
And I will not have history think I did it for a bag of gold
or in some kind of rabid fit!

HEROLD:
Johnny we have to go-

BOOTH:
No! I have to make my case!
And I need you to take it down!

HEROLD:
We don't have time!

BOOTH:
Take it down-

An indictment.
Of the former President of the United States,
Abraham Lincoln, who is herein charged
with the following high crimes and misdemeanors.

BALLADEER:
They say you're ship was sinking, John...

BOOTH:
One:
That you did ruthlessly provoke a war between the States,
which cost some six hundred thousand
of my countrymen their lives. Two:

BALLADEER:
You'd started missing cues...

BOOTH:
Two:
That you did silence your critics in the North,
by hurling them into prison without benefit of charge or trial. Three-

BALLADEER:
They say it wasn't Lincoln, John.

BOOTH:
Shut up! Three-

BALLADEER:
You'd merely had a slew of bad
Reviews-

BOOTH:
I said shut up!

VOICE:
Booth! I have fifty soldiers out here Booth!
Give yourselves up or we'll set fire to the barn!

HEROLD:
Don't shoot! I'm coming out!

BOOTH:
No!

I have given my life for one act, you understand?
Do not let history rob me of its meaning.
Pass on the truth! You're the only one wo can.
Please...

BALLADEER:
He said
"Damn you Lincoln,
You had your way-

BOOTH:
Tell'em, boy!

BALLADEER:
With blood you drew out
Of blue and gray!"

BOOTH:
Tell it all!
Tell'em till they listen!

BALLADEER:
He said,
"Damn you, Lincoln,
And damn the day
You threw the 'U' out
Of U.S.A!"

He said:

BOOTH:
Hunt me down, smear my name,
say I did it for the fame,
What I did was kill the man who killed my country.
Now the Southland will mend,
Now this bloody war can end,
Because someone slew th tyrant
Just as Brutus slew the tyrant-

BALLADEER:
He said:

BALLADEER, BOOTH:
Damn you, Lincoln,
You righteous whore!

BOOTH:
Tell'em!
Tell'em what he did!

BALLADEER, BOOTH:
You turned your spite into Civil War!

BOOTH:
Tell'em!
Tell'em the truth!

BALLADEER:
And more...

BOOTH:
Tell'em, boy!
Tell them how it happened,

How the end doesn't mean that it's over,
How surrender is not the end!
Tell them:

Hoe the country is not what it was,
Where there's blood in the clover,
How the nation can never again
Be the hope that it was.

How the bruises may never be healed,
How the wounds are forever,
How the How we gave up the field
But we still wouldn't yield,

How the union can never recover
From that Vulgar,
High and mighty
Niggerlover,
Never-!

Never. Never. Never.
No, the country is not what it was...

Damn my soul if you must,
Let my body turn to dust,
Let it mingle with the ashes of the country.

Let them curse me to hell,
Leave it to history to tell:
What I did, I did well,
And I did it for my country.

Let them cry, "dirty traitor!"
They will understand it later-
The country is not what it was...

BALLADEER:
Johnny Booth was a headstrong fellow,
Even he believed the things he said.
Some called him noble, some said yellow.
What he was was off his head.

How could you do it,Johnny,
Calling it a cause?
You left a legacy
Of butchery
And treason we
Took eagerly,
And thought you'd get applause.

But traitors just get jeers and boos,
Not visits to their graves,
While Lincoln, who got mixed reviews,
Beacause of you, John, now gets only raves.

Damn, you Johnny,
You paved the way
For other madmen
To make us pay.
Lots of madmen
Have had their say-
But only for a day.

Listen to the stories.
Hear it in the songs.
Angry men
Don't write the rules
And guns don't write the wrongs.

Hurts a while,
But soon the country's
Back where it belongs,
And that's the truth.

Still and all,
Damn you Booth!

28 February 2009

Link of the day: shirt.woot

I like the t-shirt site Threadless but most of their designs are too hippy for my taste. Recently, I discovered a new site called shirt.woot which is similar in principle (people submit designs and the most popular ones are printed). The site is a little different than Threadless in that t-shirts are continually printed as long as they are in the top 20 most popular designs. Each week, there is a "day of reckoning" when the shirts that fall off the top 20 list stop being made. Also, rather than having random designs, a weekly design contest with theme ("the derby") is held. Some recent themes were "the sea," "exercise," and "individualism." I think the creative restriction results in better designs. I find that I like shirt.woot designs much better than the Threadless designs. Some designs I like are "Sun Wukong" and "Some motivation required."