30 December 2012

Off-ice hockey shooting practice tips

On the backhand, you really need to push down hard with your bottom hand. Don't lift the blade too quickly. The puck should roll down the entire length of the blade.

For the slap shot, alignment of the puck is critical. Unlike the other types of shots (wrist shot, snap shot, backhand), you don't start with the puck on your blade. So you must precisely position the puck beforehand. I find that a good position can be determined by this method. Hold your stick at your side, near your hip. About a skate length behind the heel touches the ice is a good distance from your body. Then position the puck somewhere in the middle of your feet. When you're still a novice at the slap shot, look down at the puck while you shoot. That makes it easier.

Regarding the wrist shot and snap shot, the violent, fast push-pull and snap is critical. If you don't do it fast enough, you won't be able to lift the puck very much.

For all shots, practice shooting both from the side and facing the net.

As you get better, try stickhandling a bit before you shoot, like in a game situation. For a backhand, push the puck forward and pull it back for the shot. You need to pull the puck in pretty close to get off a decent backhand. For snap shots, try a toe drag. Or try loading and shooting many pucks in a row -- to get the feel of a quick release.

Extra stuff to work on:
  • one-timers (requires a band or bungee cord)
  • forehand and backhand passes (requires a band or bungee cord)
  • toe drags (requires a band or bungee cord)
  • saucer passes

07 October 2012

More on breakouts

These are my notes from the video "Break Out Techniques and Tips" by hockeyus.com

General tips

Open up to the teammate giving you the pass. Do this by doing a forward to backwards transition.

When you catch the pass, keep your feet moving. If you can't catch the pass moving, you need to get rid of the puck fast and make sure you step away from the wall. You need to be away from the wall so you have room to do things. You could chip the puck high off the glass, pass to the center, make a bounce pass, or make a move around a defender.

Don't pass to the center if he/she isn't open. If you are under heavy pressure, catch the puck and protect the puck against the wall. Keep the puck between your feet and put your stick between you and the defenseman.

If the passer isn't ready and you get to the hash marks, you need to stop and wait for the pass.

Breakout on the weak side
  1. Skate down the middle of the ice from the point.
  2. Do forwards to backwards transition and skate diagonally up towards the hash marks.
  3. Catch puck on your backhand.
Or if the pass comes earlier:
  1. Skate down the middle of the ice from the point.
  2. Do forwards to backwards transition and open up to the passer with your forehand.
  3. Catch puck on your forehand.
If you catch the puck on your forehand, you can make a quick bounce pass off the boards.

Breakout on the strong side
  1. Skate down the middle of the ice from the point.
  2. Do forwards to backwards transition and open up to the passer with your forehand, while skating backwards.
  3. Catch puck on your forehand.
In this situation, it's easy to 1) make a touch pass back to the passer, 2) make a bounce pass off your backhand, or 3) make a backhand chip off the glass and out.

If you don't have any pressure on you and you see that defenseman is going to wrap the puck around the glass,
  1. Skate down the middle of the ice from the point.
  2. Do a hockey turn near the goal line and keep skating forward (no transition).
  3. Catch puck on your backhand while moving.

03 October 2012

Cal Newport on following your passion

Cal Newport recently came out with a new book So Good They Can't Ignore You. Part of his central thesis is that "following your passion" and similar cliches given at graduation speeches are terrible advice.

I've followed Cal Newport's blog for years and he's been preaching this for many months. I agree with his idea, though I find his message kind of simplistic and I think he could explain it better.

I think that he's mainly pushing back against the cliche of "following your passion." There are a few jobs where passion is very common. Many people who go into sports, art, music, acting were children who saw adults doing something and decided they wanted to do it to. But most jobs aren't tangible like that. A lot of people got to their successful, fulfilling career through some circuitous route. The main point is that typically there is no easy obvious route to the wonderful career.

I went to a government career panel (for PhD scientists) and one of the panelists said that he talked to some other guys and they all agreed that they came to their current job in a circuitous route. It was only in hindsight that they could see how each choice they made along the way brought them to where they are now. It was perfectly logical now, but there's no way they could have predicted it when they were just beginning their working life.

Everyone will have preferences for some kinds of work over others and that is not something that should be ignored. But it might not be a overwhelmingly "passionate" preference -- like falling in love. The problem with a statement like "follow your passion" is that it makes it sound like the ideal career choice will suddenly come to you in a fit of heavenly inspiration. Like how a naive teenager might think that the first person they fall in love with is the person they'll marry for life.

There is also the pressure of living in a highly competitive world and opportunity cost. Life is much easier if you picked the "right" path from the start, went to the right college and majored in the right subject, etc. Yes, that is true, but there should be more discussion of how mild "failure" and changing directions is normal in a career.

11 September 2012

On paying attention

I recently had a conversation with someone I had never met before -- and the remarkable thing was that she devoted her entire attention to me. I could feel her looking intently at me, with full eye contact. She let me talk for a long time without interruption. How rare and special is it to have someone focused on you and not distracted by other things?

26 July 2012

Functional fitness

I've been rehabbing a groin pull and at my last session, I asked my physical therapist what his workout routine was. He said he does Olympic style lifting and body weight stuff (pushups, pull-ups, planks, etc) several times a week. He emphasized that he believes in "functional fitness." He said that a lift like the bench press is not a good exercise because you would never do anything like that in real life. The only purpose of the bench press is as a measurement of upper body strength, so you can compare to other people.. He thought that the true measure of fitness is: "can you pull a person out of a burning car?"... "if you're dangling off a cliffside, can you pull yourself up?" He's a huge fan of pushups (instead of the bench press). He also really likes squats and deadlifts, which work the posterior chain. I asked him about the TRX and he said it was a useful device because it allows you to work out your back, which is hard to do in bodyweight exercises.

14 July 2012

Song of the day: "Rubber Duckie" from Sesame Street

I never thought one could perform "Rubber Duckie" but Jane Krakowski, Tony Award winner and pro singer, did it in her cabaret concert.

I thought it was hilarious. Maybe one of these days, I'll perform it as a joke.

Rubber Duckie,
You're the one,
You make bath time,
Lots of fun!
Rubber Duckie,
I'm awfully fond of you!

Rubber Duckie,
Joy of joy,
When I squeeze you, you make noise,
Rubber Duckie,
You're my very best friend, it's true

Every day,
When I
Make my way to the tubby,
I find a
Little fella who's
Cute and yella,
And chubby!

Rubber duckie,
You're so fine.
And I'm lucky that you're mine.

Rubber duckie,
I'm awfully fond of ...
Rubber duckie,
I'd love a whole pond of...
Rubber duckie,
I'm awfully fond of you.

14 June 2012

Song of the day: "Let's Do It" by Cole Porter

One of my all-time favorite songs! I don't know why I didn't post it before... must have forgot. Cole Porter writes the best ridiculously exuberant, witty songs. I love Ella Fitzgerald's performance.
When the little bluebird
Who has never said a word
Starts to sing "spring spring"
When the little bluebell
In the bottom of the dell
Starts to ring "ding ding"
When the little blue clerk
In the middle of his work
Sings a song to the moon above
It is nature that's all
Simply telling us to fall in love

And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

In Spain, the best upper sets do it
Lithuanians and Letts do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

The Dutch in old Amsterdam do it
Not to mention the Finns
Folks in Siam do it - think of Siamese twins
Some Argentines, without means, do it
People say in Boston even beans do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

And that's why, sponges, they do it
Oysters down in Oyster Bay do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

And that's why
Cold Cape Cod clams, 'gainst their wish, do it
Even lazy jellyfish, do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

Electric eels, I might add, do it
Though it shocks 'em I know
Why ask, why ask, if shad do it
Waiter, "bring me, bring me shad roe, come on an' bring me shad roe!"

In shallow shores, English soles do it
Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

If the birds and the bees and the trees do it
The educated and uneducated fleas do it
The Beatles and the Animals, Sonny and Cher
Elizabeth and Richard, him and her
And if 007 James Bond can do it too
Well we can do it -- let's fall in love

13 June 2012

Song of the day: "Is That All There Is?" by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

I came across this somewhat disturbing existential song, at a performance of "Sleep No More." It was famously performed by Peggy Lee. The lyrics listed here are based off her performance.
I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I'll never forget the look on my father's face as he gathered me up in his arms
And raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself,
"Is that all there is to a fire?"

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends,
Then let's keep dancing.
Let's break out the booze
And have a ball
If that's all there is.

And when I was 12 years old, my daddy took me to the circus, the greatest show on earth.
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears and a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And as I sat there watching, I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don't know what, but when it was over I said to myself,
"Is that all there is to a circus?"
"Is that all there is?"

Is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends,
Then let's keep dancing.
Let's break out the booze
And have a ball
If that's all there is.

And then I fell in love with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We'd take long walks down by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other's eyes.
We were so very much in love. And then one day, he went away.
And I thought I'd die, but I didn't.
And when I didn't, I said to myself,
"Is that all there is to love?"

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends,
Then let's keep ...

I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
"If that's the way she feels about it, why doesn't she just end it all?"
Oh, no. Not me. I'm not ready for that final disappointment.
'Cause I know just as well as I'm standing here talking to you,
When that final moment comes when I'm breathing my last breath,
I'll be saying to myself...

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends,
Then let's keep dancing.
Let's break out the booze
And have a ball
If that's all there is.

30 May 2012

Thought of the day: The best intellectual training

At the risk of sounding self-serving and elitist, I think the best intellectual training is mathematics and physics. These subjects are the most challenging to learn due to their abstract nature and extremely difficult to pick up as an adult (maybe as difficult as learning a musical instrument or foreign language as an adult). There are many claims that mathematicians and theoretical physicists make their biggest discoveries before the age of 40. Mathematicians and physicists have a reputation for being "smart" and after a long period of reluctance and doubt, I have to agree that this reputation is well-deserved.

If you know math and physics, it's easy to pick up almost everything else. I'm not saying you'll achieve a deep understanding of literature, history, or business, but you'll be able to learn it pretty fast and be decent at it. My friend remarked that the coolest people are the scientists who are the top in their field and interested in everything. Unfortunately, these people are a minority. The rest are rather one-dimensional and dull company. (Her opinion, not mine.)

I think that the other difficult fields to pick up are visual art and music. They are also quite abstract. Artists are trained to "see" in a special way; they can translate what they see into an artistic representation (often translating 3D into 2D). By visual art, I'm talking about drawing and painting, not photography (which is kind of a technological cheat). Musicians innately understand rhythm and scales.

I've heard that philosophy is the best intellectual training if you restrict yourself to humanities fields. I'm not really sure about social science. Those are interesting subjects, but I think if you just want to be a great thinker, you're better off starting with math and physics.

So I guess if I had a child, I would have him/her learn art, music, math, and physics, plus a couple foreign languages.

29 May 2012

Thought of the day: Detail vs ideas

I find it easy to get overwhelmed by details, particularly in science where most research reveals around investigating one specific detail. There are so many facts and things to remember that I end up feeling hopeless and depressed.

So now I want to do something different. Instead start from the big idea and then go looking for the details that support and illuminate the idea. Reading scientific papers (which are usually not well-written) is like wading through a sea of details and hoping to re-construct the big idea that encompasses them. Very difficult and painful.

28 May 2012

Encounter with a theater junkie

Last night, I went to a cabaret concert and I sat next to a woman who is basically a theater junkie. She told me that she goes to off-off-off Broadway shows. She doesn't like Broadway shows. I'm guessing probably because it's too commercial and expensive. She's a member of a discount club which has great deals (usually 50% off) on shows, ranging from musicals to plays to circus acts to radio theater. I had no idea people still did radio theater in the US! She gave me some great recommendations on things to see. Some shows she really liked: a radio theater thing, a circus act performed by people with "beautiful bodies", a transsexual artist doing a tribute to another famous artist. And we bonded over our love of opera. These kinds of encounters are unique and special -- I'm extremely grateful. I don't know any theater junkies so it's really hard to get into it.

27 May 2012

Link of the day: "How to Live Unhappily Ever After"

A few weeks ago, I read this essay by Augusten Burroughs in the Wall Street Journal about how happiness is overrated.

In particular, I like this passage:
The truth about healing is that heal is a television word. Someone close to you dies? You will never heal. What will happen is, for the first few days, the people around you will touch your shoulder and this will startle you and remind you to breathe. You will feel as though you will soon be dead from natural causes; the weight of the grief will be physical and very nearly unbearable.

Eventually, you will shower and leave the house. Maybe in a year you will see a movie. And one day somebody will say something and it will cause you to laugh. And you will clamp your hand over your mouth because you laughed and that laugh will break your heart, it will feel like a betrayal. How can you laugh?

In time, to your friends, you will appear to have recovered from your loss. All that really happened, you'll think, is that the hole in the center of your life has narrowed just enough to be concealed by a laugh. And yet, you might feel a pressure for it to be true. You might feel that "enough" time has passed now, that the hole at the center of you should not be there at all.
I imagine that there are some depressed people out there who simply get better and better at lying, at covering up their darkness, for the sake of maintaining their social life and relationships. Even the closest, most understanding of friends will eventually tire of negativity.

Augusten Burroughs is the famed author of Running with Scissors -- which I have not read.

23 May 2012

Thought of the day: Direct Studies for scientists?

I have heard a lot of good things about the Directed Studies program at Yale. It's an elective program for freshmen undergraduates. For their first two semester, the students take three classes covering "literature, philosophy, and historical and political thought."

My impression is that it's a survey of the foundations of Western culture. It helps people understand where many Western ideas came from, for example, democracy -- an idea we take for granted. The professors encourage a lot of discussion and deep thinking. Directed Studies teaches young people how to think. In the Boston Globe, one of the Directed Studies professors argues why the program and those like it are important:
The first is that there is more than one good answer to the question of what living is for. A second is that the number of such answers is limited, making it possible to study them in an organized way. A third is that the answers are irreconcilably different, necessitating a choice among them. A fourth is that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength. And a fifth is that their study should introduce students to the great conversation in which these works are engaged - Augustine warily admiring Plato, Hobbes reworking Aristotle, Paine condemning Burke, Eliot recalling Dante, recalling Virgil, recalling Homer - and help students find their own authentic voice as participants in the conversation.
Would it be possible to make an equivalent for science? How would you cover the history of science? What would be the book list? I'm guessing that constructing a science version of Directed Studies would be pretty difficult. Scientific ideas, especially from physics and math, are very abstract and difficult to grasp. If you don't have a good base of math, physics, chemistry, and biology, it'd be hard to have discussions. Moreover, the way that these subjects are taught in K-12 doesn't help. Students are taught to memorize and apply recipes. I don't think freshmen would have enough background. The only book I can think of that would work is Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

22 May 2012

What a scientist should be able to do

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
I was thinking about what are the skills a scientist should have. What do you think a grad student should know at the end, after they finish their PhD?
  1. Technical skills - mathematics, programming/numerics, lab techniques, etc
  2. Writing - ability to write good scientific papers that are clear, concise, and well-motivated
  3. Presentations - ability to write good presentations and deliver them well, this is closely related to writing
  4. Comprehension - ability to distill the important ideas from a paper or presentation, ability to tell the difference between crappy research and good research
  5. Process - (advanced) ability to come up with concrete ways/experiments to answer questions, ability to overcome deadends in research, ability to stay organized, keep good records, and manage other people
  6. Community - talking to people including those outside your field, attending seminars/conferences, convincing people your research is important, building a network of trusted friends who you can turn to for feedback and support
  7. Creativity - ability to understand the difference between good and bad ideas/questions, (advanced) ability to come up with interesting questions that are soluble
  8. Resilience - ability to stay positive and motivated even when the research isn't going very well
I am by no means an expert on this subject.

21 May 2012

Link of the day: Three styles for writing a (scientific) paper

My sister alerted me to a nice explanation of how a scientific paper should be written. The author, Prof. Stuart Shieber, describes three styles of writing a paper and which one you should use.

The first is the "continental" style in which you simply state the idea and show the data/proof. I think the name "continental" refers to those continental breakfasts where you choose whatever you want to eat from a buffet. This kind of paper has no motivation and to readers who are not experienced, makes it seem like you are really smart. It's also unreadable.

The second style is the "historical" style. It's kind of like writing a diary where you describe all the mistakes you made, how you changed your research direction, etc. A lot of students fall into writing in this way because they're doing their first big research project, it's all new to them, and they think their work is really important or want to explain how much they suffered during the process. The problem with this approach is that there is a lot of stuff the reader doesn't need to know and also, it might make you look like an idiot.

The third style is the "rational reconstruction" style. It's kind of a middle-of-the-road style between "continental" and "historical." You present an ideal history which only shows the steps that motivate your final result. It's kind of like if you made a movie of your life -- you would want to show the important events and tie them together in a consistent, meaningful manner. Sometimes you might need to embellish or downplay something a little to make the story more coherent or engaging.

The concise version:

"Continental" style - you state the idea without any motivation -> makes you look like a genius, at least to those whom you can fool into thinking that unreadable papers are brilliant

"Historical" style - you provide a diary of your research containing all the mistakes and changes in direction you made -> makes you look like an idiot

"Rational reconstruction" style - you give an ideal history, only present the relevant steps and motivate everything properly -> the one you should use

20 May 2012

Thought of the day: The self-aware learner

A lot of life seems to be learning self-awareness. Some major examples are being self-aware of your mental/emotional state and being self-aware of your learning process. No one teaches us these things, and few people talk about them.

Actually, that's not completely correct. You go to therapy and talk to a psychologist/psychiatrist/etc. There are different schools of psychology. One of the main branches is psychoanalysis, whose goal is to help the patient understand themselves.

As to learning processes, we spend so much of our lives in school yet we never spend any time thinking about how we learn. Meta-learning is an important topic. As the old cliched saying goes, it's so much more useful to teach someone how to fish than to fish for them. What type of learner are you? Visual? Kinesthetic? When you're confronted with a subject you know a little about it but not very much, how do you approach learning it? How can we teach people how to learn?

One way is project-based learning. Often, a class ends with a one-month long project. This tends to be very short-term and driven by trying to do an adequate enough job for an A. Maybe it would be better to have a class that is entirely focused on a project. Still, that is only a few months in a college course.

How about craft learning? What if you want to be a world-class hockey player or musician or mathematician? This isn't something that can be encapsulated in a class. You need to do a hobby on a semi-serious level for a year or so to get a taste of this. For example, I spent a year learning photography. After a year, I mastered all the basic technical stuff and had gotten a taste of the different fields (e.g. event, portrait, landscape photography). I could recognize what were the big ideas in photography. The use of light and shadow. Colors - warm vs cool colors. Right now, I could probably make a list of what general ideas every photographer should master. Then if you told me what type of photography you wanted to become (say macro), I could write a list of what technical skills you should work on.

Some of the greatest musicians/athletes/actors/etc had a parent who guided them from day one, telling them what to focus on, what skill to learn. A really neat story is László Polgár training his daughters into chess grandmasters. Or they grew up in an area teeming with the best in their field -- like actors and musicians who grew up in New York. These kids could go to the theatre and see world class productions, or find teachers affiliated with Julliard.

14 May 2012

What I learned at the defense industry career panel

This afternoon, I went to a panel about doing science in government, mostly defense work. It was the best career event I've ever been to. The three panelists were diverse, interesting, charismatic, down-to-earth, and genuinely helpful. All three had PhDs in science/engineering. I'm relating what I learned from memory, so the account below is not entirely accurate.

The first panelist was a man who works in a technology office. He said that nowadays he mostly signs checks. But back in the day, he did all sorts of cool defense research. He even slept on an aircraft carrier. He recommended that we cyberstalk as much as possible to get a job. He told us that he gets to work at 6 am and has an hour before everyone else shows up. That's the perfect time for an informational interview over the phone. He also cyberstalks, from the hiring end. When he Googles people, he likes to see that they have varied experiences, for example, doing charity work in a poor area. He believed that the PhD is a degree in perseverance. He got his PhD while working full-time, though towards the end when he was writing his thesis, he got a few days off a week. Also, it was interesting when he asked how many people in the room (mostly science grad students and postdocs) wanted to be rich. Almost no one raised their hand. He claimed that MIT, almost everyone raised their hand. He told us that the young should not go into policy, that was something for later in one's career if you still wanted to do it. I don't recall the exact reason. Overall, he was very matter-of-fact and blunt, with strong opinions.

The second panelist was a Eastern European woman who worked in the bioweapons office. She emphasized that her PhD had nothing to do with bioweapons. The most interesting thing was that she was also in the Army reserve and had officer rank. But because of her Eastern European background and accent, people didn't believe that she was in the Army. They asked "which army?" She remarked that she felt just as loyal to the US as anyone else, because she had to swear allegiance twice -- first to become a US citizen, then to join the Army. She also made a comment about Eastern Europe being very different than America. For example, the joke is that if an officer tells a US soldier to jump, the soldier say "how high?" An Eastern European soldier would ask "why?"

The last panelist was a guy who works with scientists from many fields. He gave the example of having a discussion about weapons with a biologist, chemist, and physicist. His job was to bring everyone together and synthesize the different ideas and perspectives. He had a very unusual background. He was half-Hispanic and half-German and grew up on the West Coast. His father was a rocket engineer so he grew up learning about rockets. But he never actually studied engineering in college. He stressed the importance of learning different subjects. He himself felt that his study of jazz in college really helped him become a good thinker, even though the subject seems to have nothing in common with science. (I emailed him a few days after the panel and he said it's important to have hobbies not just because they make you smarter, but also for the sake of your sanity.) He also said that a while back, he was on a job panel and when the panelists compared notes, they realized that they had never planned their job path. Stuff just happened. They had no idea what they were doing at the time; only looking back retroactively, could they construct a "logical" path. He recommended just doing whatever you find interesting instead of scheming some plan to work your way to the top.

To summarize, here are some of the most interesting (and subjective) things I learned:
  • Cyberstalk as much as possible to get a job.
  • For many people, phone calls are easiest very early in the morning.
  • Don't do policy when you're young.
  • If you enjoy studying peripheral seemingly useless subjects, don't worry. They'll be surprisingly useful in subtle ways.
  • There is no coherent job path. So just do whatever you find interesting. Life is too short.

12 May 2012

Thought of the day: Inspired connections

I realized that talking to really smart people inspires me to say smart things that I didn't think I knew. Well, that's not completely accurate, more like the underlying thoughts were already there, but talking to someone smarter than you provides the spark that allows you to connect those thoughts. My advisor said that it feels like the words just come out of your mouth. For me, the words feel so new and fresh that it's hard to believe it's me saying them. As if someone else were talking and I'm just an observer.

08 May 2012

Thought of the day: Being a minority

The problem of women in science (or whatever you want to call it) is a fundamentally a problem of being a minority. Many areas of life were traditionally run by white, straight men, and even in the 21st century, it's very hard to break in. Being a minority is always hard. I've been on a sports team where I was surrounded by people were 20 years older, with families, and middle class jobs. The fact that we were all female didn't really matter much. Then I played with a sports club where there were a lot of guys (some women) but they were all around my age and studying science. Much better!

A woman developer gave a talk about making the developing community more female friendly and she has some good examples to illustrate what it's like to be a minority.
So what does it feel like to be a woman in open source? Jono Bacon, at the Community Leadership Summit on the weekend, said — addressing the guys in the room — that if you want to know what it’s like to be a woman in open source, go and get your nails done at a salon. He did this a week or so back, and when he walked into the salon he realised he was the only man there, and felt kind of out of place.

Another example someone suggested is walking into a sports bar on game night wearing the wrong team’s jersey. It can be the most friendly sports bar in the universe, but you’re still going to feel pretty awkward.

So as a woman in open source, it can be a bit like that. You walk into a space, and you feel like you stand out. And there’s enormous pressure to perform well, in case any mistake you make reflects on everyone of your gender.
So if you're lobbying to make life better for women in science, don't make yourself look like a man-hater. Your colleagues are probably white, straight, male, and speak English. They've never been a minority so they just don't know what it's like. Talk to them and educate them.

07 May 2012

Thought of the day: Becoming an autodidact

I've found that the most useful skill to develop is the ability to teach myself. Recently, I found out that the term for this is "autodidact." I wonder if teaching oneself has general principles itself. Here are some of the methods I use to teach myself:
  1. What is universal? What are the most important concepts?
    This is a typical physicist perspective. For example, for photography, I might say the important ideas are light and shadow, the quality of light (diffuse or harsh), warm vs cool colors.
  2. How is this field different from similar fields?
    In physics, we tend to be concerned with finding clean, beautiful, logically consistent mathematical rules for explaining nature. In biology, people are trying to model complicated, messy, real systems.
  3. What is the progression?
    You want to identify where to start, where to end, and how to progress in between. If you don't have a progression, you have no idea how far you have to go or what you've accomplished and it's easy to become frustrated. To learn hockey, you start with skating, then progress to stickhandling and shooting, and finally tactics and teamwork.
  4. Read interviews with important people in the field.
    They'll identify what's important. I learned a lot about narrative and character by reading interviews with distinguished actors.
  5. Listen to what people in the field say or read forums.
    This is a bit trickier because you have to find the right people -- hopefully intelligent, articulate types. This might not be easy. I read theater forums sometimes. I found one forum where people frequently trash shows (though there were some insightful comments if you sifted the wheat from the chaff). The Sondheim specific forum was better because people were more interested in analyzing the shows than shoving their opinions down people's throats.
  6. Find a partner.
    I've never done this, but if you can find someone at a similar level and you get along well, this could be dynamite. You can hang out together, support each other, inspire ideas, etc. I guess this is not being an autodidact, but who cares.
If you try to learn several unrelated fields, you'll start to see patterns and that will make it easier to pickup more subjects.

06 May 2012

Why not to be a workaholic: Finally a real reason

I've been a workaholic. Sometimes it was great and I got tons of stuff done. Other times, I burned out.

Lots of people say, "Don't be a workaholic! You must have balance in your life!" Sorry, but sounds like a mere opinion to me. Everyone has a different idea of what balance means.

If you could work day and night, why not do it? The practical reason is that it's just not sustainable. Burnout is inevitable. (Maybe there's someone superhuman out there. But I don't know anyone personally. Paul Erdos?)

Still, this is a practical reason. I've never come up with a good philosophical reason not be a workaholic. Now, I think I have one. If you're a workaholic, it means you value your work above all other human endeavors. You might think of a priority system where you determine your priorities by how many hours you assign to each aspect of your life. When you're a workaholic, you've assigned infinite hours to your work; no finite number is good enough. In other words, you consider your work to be infinitely more important than anything else. This is a terrible mindset to have. Because there are many other interesting and worthy activities going on in the world. There are other important/brilliant people out there.

We've all met zealots who seem to think they are the most important people in the world. Don't become like that.

21 April 2012

Link of the day: An Invocation for Beginnings

An amazing inspirational video by Ze Frank about fear, creativity, and life among other things.
Don't call it a comb-back; I'll have hair for years.

I'm scared. I'm scared that my abilities are gone. I'm scared that I'm going to fuck this up. And I'm scared of you. I don't want to start, but I will.

This is an invocation for anyone who hasn't begun, who's stuck in a terrible place between zero and one.

Let me realize that my past failures at follow-through are no indication of my future performance. They're just healthy little fires that are going to warm up my ass.

If my FILDI (fuck it let's do it) is strong, let me keep him in a velvet box until I really, really need him. If my FILDI is weak, let me feed him oranges and not let him gorge himself on ego and arrogance.

Let me not hit up my Facebook like it's a crack pipe. Keep the browser closed. If I catch myself wearing a too-too (too fat, too late, too old), let me shake it off like a donkey would shake off something it doesn't like.

When I get that feeling in my stomach -- you know the feeling when all of a sudden you get a ball of energy and it shoots down into your legs and up into your arms and tells you to get up and stand up and go to the refrigerator and get a cheese sandwich -- that's my cheese monster talking. And my cheese monster will never be satisfied by cheddar, only the cheese of accomplishment.

Let me think about the people who I care about the most, and how when they fail or disappoint me... I still love them, I still give them chances, and I still see the best in them. Let me extend that generosity to myself.

Let me find and use metaphors to help me understand the world around me and give me the strength to get rid of them when it's apparent they no longer work.

Let me thank the parts of me that I don't understand or are outside of my rational control like my creativity and my courage. And let me remember that my courage is a wild dog. It won't just come when I call it, I have to chase it down and hold on as tight as I can.

Let me not be so vain to think that I'm the sole author of my victories and a victim of my defeats. Let me remember that the unintended meaning that people project onto what I do is neither my fault or something I can take credit for.

Perfectionism may look good in his shiny shoes but he's a little bit of an asshole and no one invites him to their pool parties.

Let me remember that the impact of criticism is often not the intent of the critic, but when the intent is evil, that's what the block button is for. And when I eat my critique, let me be able to separate out the good advice from the bitter herbs.

(There are few people won't be disarmed by a genuine smile. A big impact on a few can be worth more than a small impact.)

Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else, and if it is, let me become fascinated with the shape of the stone.

Let me take the idea that has gotten me this far and put it to bed. What I am about to do will not be that, but it will be something.

There is no need to sharpen my pencils anymore. My pencils are sharp enough. Even the dull ones will make a mark.

Warts and all. Let's start this shit up.

(And god let me enjoy this. Life isn't just a sequence of waiting for things to be done.)

18 April 2012

Thought of the day: What is the progression?

When you're learning or teaching, a good question to ask yourself is: "what is the progression?"

I'm not sure where the term "progression" came from, but I've heard it used in reference to strength training and conditioning. One day, at the gym, I saw a new piece of equipment, a back extension bench. I asked the supervisor how to use the bench and I tried it. It was pretty damn hard and I realized that the exercise was too difficult/advanced for me. So I went back to the supervisor and asked him if there was an easier exercise that would help me build up to the back extension bench. He gave me another exercise and said, "That's the progression."

Recently, I having discussions on how to coach beginning adult hockey players. It's very tricky to teach adults hockey because there is just so much to learn and because hockey is one of the most difficult sports to become proficient in (let's not talk about being a master, it's hard enough just be decent). Through the course of the discussion, I realized that you need to design practices where the different drills reinforce each other, skills are applied in different contexts, and teach how skills are used in game situations -- all without making people frustrated or bored. There needs to be a progression to take people from not knowing how to skate to being able to play in a game with decent skating, stickhandling, shooting, and tactical skills.

The progression for learning hockey would be something like:
  1. Learn how to use your edges
  2. Skating in a straight line, stopping
  3. Crossovers, tight turns, transitions
  4. Skating with the puck
  5. Simple dekes
  6. Shooting
  7. Tactics
The learner is often frustrated about making progress or overwhelmed by how much work there is to do. So it's important to give them just enough to chew on, but not get stuck or become intimidated. The teacher is often frustrated that the learner isn't improving quickly enough. The key to solving these problems is to identify what skills need to be mastered and to come up with a progression to tie everything together.

15 April 2012

Link of the day: "Worse than the Cultural Revolution"

There is a lot of good stuff published over at the New York Review of Books (NYRB). No wonder one of my friends spoke so highly of them.

On the NYRB blog, there was a nice interview with Tian Qing, head of the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center. He spoke at length about the tension between modernization and preserving culture. He made a good point (that is not brought up enough) that Western society had 200 years to modernize, something that China has been trying to replicate in a mere thirty years. Moreover, China is a national one billion people. That brings all kinds of complications. Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea modernized pretty well, but they were so much smaller.

I suppose it's inevitable that modernization would happen, but it's sad to see China's heritage disappearing. They held out for a few thousand years; should I think that's pretty good?

13 April 2012

Sarah Glidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

Recently, I dropped into a comic book store that specialized in indie comics. I felt bad about spending so much time in there and not buying anything, so I picked up Sarah Glidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. It's about a young Jewish woman going on the Birthright tour to Israel. The tour is meant to expose expat Jews to their homeland and culture.

I enjoyed it for its thoughtfulness and the personal nature of the work. One of the best graphic novels I've read in a long time. There is a similar tour sponsored by the Taiwanese government, nicknamed "The Love Boat." Surprisingly, I found a lot to relate to in Glidden's novel despite not knowing much about Jewish culture. I identified strongly with the struggle to decide "what side you're on", whether or not to agree with the politics of your homeland. Maybe it's not surprising. One of my family friends said that there's a lot of similarity between Chinese and Jewish culture, which is why many Chinese-Americans and Jewish-Americans marry.

09 April 2012

Link of the day: Video games as psychological tools?

I've always loved video games, but nowadays I don't play them much due to both lack of time and lack of innovation in game design. Still, I try to keep up with the discussion of "video games as art" and "the future of video games."

Recently, there was a cleverly written and insightful New York Times essay about "stupid games."

I can sympathize with the author's desire to stay away from "addictive" games which make your unproductive and add nothing to your life. He makes the point that it's true games have been around forever (for example, dice), but video games (starting with Tetris) are addictive in a way that is different and new. Now that you can play games on smartphones, you can play anytime, filling the smallest sliver of time when you're bored. I remember when a friend of mine told me that Baldur's Gate (a PC RPG) was "crack." iPhone games are probably crack+++. The fact is that on a smartphone, you have a tiny screen and a limited control interface, so the games have to be very simple.
This has encouraged a very different kind of game: Tetris-like little puzzles, broken into discrete bits, designed to be played anywhere, in any context, without a manual, by any level of player. (Charles Pratt, a researcher in New York University’s Game Center, refers to such games as “knitting games.”) You could argue that these are pure games: perfectly designed minisystems engineered to take us directly to the core of gaming pleasure without the distraction of narrative.
Sam Anderson, the author, goes on to research the addictive nature of smartphone games by interviewing various game designers. One person he interviews is Zach Gage, an indie game designer. Gage laments the death of public arcades in America. Me, too, although I made a point of visiting arcades in Japan, where they are still very much alive. He's right that there just aren't many social games anymore, but that he means games where you play in the same room with other people. The only games I can think of are sports games, dance/music games, and a few Nintendo games like Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers, and Super Mario Strikers. Gage also makes the interesting point that many smartphone games are just Gameboy games that have been ported. This is despite the fact that the Gameboy controller interface is completely different -- buttons as opposed to touch screen. There's no creativity. It's obvious that if touch screens had come first, there wouldn't be a game like Tetris on the iPhone.

Gage has multiple projects going on, including a satire of "stupid games."
In fact, one of Gage’s current projects is a satire of the current state of the gaming industry, especially companies’ tendency to try to cash in by copying the latest trend. The game’s working title is “Unify Birds.” It’s exactly the same as Unify except that it has been redesigned in the most superficial possible way: Gage has turned all of the blocks into colorful, wide-eyed birds. “I made a couple of other little changes,” Gage says, “but mainly I just made everything superadorable. It’s been really interesting, because I’ve showed it to people who liked Unify, and they’ll play it, and they’ll be like: ‘Oh, man, Zach. This is a really good game. This is better.’ They wondered what I’ve changed.”
I thought this really shows how manipulative games are. "Stupid games" are designed to tap into the basest of human compulsions and desires, in the above case: cuteness. Anderson tells us that there's even a name for this, it's "gamification." Companies use this all the time, for example, frequent flier miles.

Zynga, a company which is the king of "stupid games", is a target of blame. Many people, including myself, think that Zynga is just peddling a form of digital crack.
Some people argue that Zynga’s signature games — FarmVille, FishVille — shouldn’t even be called games. As Nicholas Carlson of the Web site Business Insider wrote: “They are click-machines powered by the human need to achieve progress by a predictable path and a willingness to pay small amounts of money to make that progress go faster. They are not ‘games.’ ” But you could argue that games like FarmVille are in fact just the logical end of gamification: gamified games. They have the appearance of games, they inspire the compulsions of games, but for many people they are not fun like games.
I remember playing a Gamecube title called Animal Crossing. I liked the fact that the game didn't even try to disguise the fact that there was no point to it. You were forcibly given a house at the beginning of the game and told to pay it off. To do this, you pick fruit, catch fish, etc and sell your goods to the store. As you earn money, you can buy new outfits or decorations for your house. When you find new species of fish or insects, you can also donate these to a museum. After you pay down the house, you're forced to upgrade the house and pay that down, too. So in the end, the game is all about consumerism and hording. And of course, all the characters (except yourself) are cute animals.

Anderson interviews the game designer for Drop7, which is a game that even he found irrepressibly compulsive. The game designer, Frank Lantz, had an interesting view. He thought that instead of thinking of games as fun or crack, we should think of them as a way to test our brain chemistry.
Games, he told me, are like “homebrew neuroscience” — “a little digital drug you can use to run experiments on your own brain.” Part of the point of letting them seduce you, as Lantz sees it, is to come out the other side a more interesting and self-aware person; more conscious of your habits, weaknesses, desires and strengths. “It’s like heroin that is abstracted or compressed or stylized,” he said. “It gives you a window into your brain that doesn’t crush your brain.”
The fact that "stupid games" are so stripped down and designed to feed our compulsions makes us that a good hard look at the question "what is a game". Through the essay, there are a few hints about this.

Certainly there are games that we consider more like "art" and a worthy pursuit.
Chess, you might say, is the king of stupid games: the tide line where stupid games meet genius.
A bit of wisdom from Sid Meier, who developed the fantastic Civilization series (one of the "better" games):
The legendary game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as, simply, “a series of interesting choices.”
Finally, the ending passage from the essay:
Lantz told me that the deepest relationship he has ever had with a game was with poker, to which he was almost dangerously addicted. “Somehow teetering on the edge was part of the fun for me,” he said. “It was like a tightrope walk between this transcendently beautiful and cerebral thing that gave you all kinds of opportunities to improve yourself — through study and self-discipline, making your mind stronger like a muscle — and at the same time it was pure self-destruction. There’s no word for that in English, for a thing that does both of those at the same time. But it’s wonderful.”

I asked him if he knew a word for that in another language.

He said no, but then he thought for a minute.

“I think it’s ‘game,’ ” he said. “I think the word for that is ‘game.’ ”
I'm not sure I agree with that last quote. Would we consider poker self-destructive if we took away the gambling aspect? Honestly, anything can be corrupting or self-destructive. What about chasing money or status? As Lantz says, maybe games are a safe way to learn about our compulsions. What about sports? People frequently call those "games." Are sports considered "worthier" because they are physical and social?

I think a better definition of "game" is something that simulates some aspect of life or human nature, in a self-contained, simplified environment. I prefer a definition that doesn't make value judgments about whether a game is "stupid" or not.

06 April 2012

Thought of the day: Lay down your cynicism

In this time and age, it seems popular to make dystopian films, write ironic too-clever novels, criticize others, worry about how you're not good enough, complain about the state of the world, etc. I think enough is enough. I'm not saying that we should all go back to Disneyland, but if negativity becomes your life, you have to push back.

Lay down your cynicism. Open up yourself. Suspend judgment on others and yourself as long as possible. Take a risk on someone and hope for the good.

04 April 2012

Song of the day: "Beautiful City" by Stephen Schwartz

The revival of Godspell is playing on Broadway right now. I happened upon a video of Hunter Parrish singing "Beautiful City" and really enjoyed it. Very touching, with a gorgeous melody. I'll put this one on my list of songs to learn.

These are the revised lyrics for the revival.
Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man

We may not reach the ending
But we can start
Slowly but truly mending
Brick by brick, heart by heart
Now, maybe now
We start learning how

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man

When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up, bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build

A beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But finally a city of man.

A city of man.

27 March 2012

Song of the day: "Beauty and the Beast" by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

Menken and Ashman did great work together and their most famous song is probably "Beauty and the Beast." The lyrics are so poignant and poetic. My favorite line is "Finding you can change/Learning you were wrong." The song takes on even more meaning when you consider that Ashman passed away before the Beauty and the Beast film was released. He knew he was dying the whole time he was working on the film. Alan Menken says that of all the songs in the film, this one was the hardest to write.

Apparently, Ashman was quite the driving leader and creative genius. He had a vision that animation and musicals would be a great marriage. And he sold the Disney corporation on it! He gathered a bunch of Disney people in a room and did a presentation where he discussed the history of the animation and the history of musicals separately and then showed how they were similar. (I don't have any further details on what the presentation was about.) I found a video where he coaches Jodi Benson, who sings Ariel in A Little Mermaid. He tell her to think about singing in a small enclosed space and makes an interesting remark about singing with "intensity" as opposed to with more "voice." I think what he meant is that you can convey emotion with the color in your voice instead of just using volume or belting.

There's also a nice video in which Alan Menken and collaborators reminisce about making Beauty and the Beast. I found out some interesting things. Ashman didn't tell anyone that he was sick, for a long time. But he would act out, doing things like smashing $500 Sony Walkmans. Ashman was also a guy who knew his theater really well. In the "Mob Song" from Beauty and the Beast, there are a couple obscure references. "Screw your courage to the sticking place" is a direct quote from Macbeth and "fifty Frenchmen can't be wrong" is a reference to Cole Porter.
Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends
Just a little change
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared
Beauty and the Beast

Ever just the same
Ever a surprise
Ever as before
Ever just as sure
As the sun will rise

Tale as old as time
Tune as old as song
Bittersweet and strange
Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong
Certain as the sun
Rising in the east
Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

26 March 2012

Song of the day: "Suddenly, Seymour" by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

A charming, sweet song from the musical Little Shop of Horrors. Howard Ashman was a gifted lyricist. I really like the line "He don't give me orders/He don't condescend." Unfortunately, Ashman passed away at age 40. Imagine how many Disney musicals would be better with his lyrics.
Lift up your head
Wash off your mascara
Here, take my Kleenex
Wipe that lipstick away
Show me your face, clean as the mornin'
I know things were bad, but now they're okay

Suddenly, Seymour is standin' beside you
You don't need no makeup, don't have to pretend
Suddenly, Seymour is here to provide you
Sweet understanding
Seymour's your friend

Nobody ever treated me kindly
Daddy left early
Mama was poor
I'd meet a man and I'd follow him blindly
He'd snap his fingers
Me, I'd say "sure."

Suddenly, Seymour is standin' beside me
He don't give me orders
He don't condescend
Suddenly Seymour is here to provide me
Sweet understanding
Seymour's my friend

Tell me this feelin'll last till forever
Tell me the bad times are clean washed away

Please understand that it's still strange and fright'nin'
For losers like I've been it's so hard to say

Suddenly, Seymour,
He purified me.
Suddenly, Seymour,
He showed me I can
Learn how to be more
The girl that's inside me
With sweet understanding,
With sweet understanding,
With sweet understanding,
Seymour's my/your man!

23 March 2012

Learning from other fields and cross-training

As I get older, I feel like scientists aren't really good at anything except science. Not that this is entirely surprising or that we should expect scientists to be amazing writers, speakers, etc. But if you're a scientist, you spend all your time immersed in the scientific community, thinking that the quality of writing or presentations that you see there are really the way things should be... well, you should go look at essays in the New Yorker or The Atlantic, or watch TED speakers or theatre performers or standup comics. The professionals of every field tend to have their strengths and weaknesses. If you want to shore up your weaknesses, go look for a field where that particular weakness is a strength, learn from those people, and use them as your inspiration. If you look outside your field, I think you'll have a huge leg up over others.

In sports, we call this cross-training. Athletes have no problem taking up yoga to help their hockey goaltending skills, for instance.

22 March 2012

Opinions and appreciation in culture and art

I've come to realize that there are certain genres or styles of performing art or types of food that I just can't seem to get into. Despite 8 years of piano lessons, I've never really understood classical music. I enjoy flashy violin solos like "Tzigane," but I have no idea what's going on in Mahler's symphonies. I don't get pop or rock music. I still can't tell the difference between various wines. Conversely, there are people who won't get my love of musical theatre, opera, and intense TV drama. (I'm still working on being a better theatre audience member.)

What does it all mean? If I don't appreciate something, is it because it's something innate about my personality (like gloomy people who can't stand Annie-esque material)? Or is it some innate prejudice (like my dad telling me as a child that pop music sucks)? Or is it that I just never met anyone who explained the merits to me, that I didn't have enough exposure to the material as a child?

Whatever the reason, I've learned that taste is very subjective. We shouldn't be dismissive of people's opinions when it comes to art and culture because everyone's opinions are born of complicated circumstances that we're likely never to know. On review websites, instead of saying that other people are wrong, you should say that you don't understand where the dissenters are coming from, or that your taste is different. And if you have a friend who loves death metal or something that you're not into, why not take this as an opportunity to learn why your friend loves the things he/she does?

16 March 2012

Notes on shows I've seen in the last six years

The Producers (March 2006)
St. James Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I'm pretty sure this was the very first Broadway show I saw. This was back when I knew zero about Broadway. My sister and I took the train down to meet up with some family friends. We had no idea what to see, but we had heard of the The Producers so we got tickets to see it from the TKTS booth. Our seats were somewhere in the middle of the theater. Neither my sister or I were very impressed with the show and I fell asleep during the climatic "Springtime for Hitler" number. Our friends, meanwhile, had scored lottery tickets to see Wicked in the front row. Apparently, they had a good time. C

Die Zauberflöte (November 2007)
Saturday matinee, Dress Circle D121, Metropolitan Opera, New York

I went for a doubleheader of Mozart, starting with Die Zauberflöte in the afternoon. I liked Act I, but found Act II dull and fell asleep except for the famous Queen of the Night aria. It was good to see a production at the Met, but this probably isn't my favorite Mozart opera. B

Le nozze di Figaro (November 2007)
Saturday evening, Dress Circle B22, Metropolitan Opera, New York

This is one of my favorite operas, so I was expecting a lot. I love the entire score. I don't think the production hasn't changed much over the years, so it seemed pretty similar to the DVD performance that I fell in love with. I think the famed baritone Bryn Terfel played Figaro. I vaguely recall that it was a good performance, but nothing amazing. B+

Il Barbiere di Siviglia (2007)
Metropolitan Opera, New York

I can't remember when I went to see this, so I'm guessing at the date. My friend, a German and an opera fan, got tickets to see it. The production was beautifully staged and I remember a lot of oranges. Peter Mattei played a very dashing Figaro. I had never seen any production of The Barber of Seville, so this was tremendously exciting. The music was, of course, amazing. I didn't find out until later that the Count who spends all his time trying to get the girl in The Barber of Seville ends up becoming an adulterous jerk in The Marriage of Figaro. A

Sunday in the Park with George (January 2008)
Tuesday evening, Orchestra B109, Studio 54, New York (Broadway)

This show is what convinced me to become a theater fan. I had just found out that the London production of SITPWG was transferring to New York and I was so excited that I bought a ticket to see it during the first week of previews. I'd never seen a show up close, and the best seat I could find was second row center during previews for the next day. I charged the ticket on my credit card without much hesitation and ran down to New York to see it the next day. It was the first time I'd done anything like that and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Normally, it's not the best idea to see a show during previews, but the show had transferred from the West End with the same leads, so it was more like a tech rehearsal. I do remember the mics having nasty feedback at one point during the show, but mostly it went on without a hitch. I vaguely recall that someone in the audience told me a story about how he had been at the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd in 1979 and that the set almost collapsed on the cast. It's amazing how I meet these people who've lived in New York for their entire lives.

Daniel Evans (George) and Jenna Russell (Dot) were amazing, especially up close. (After that, I always tried to get a seat in the first five rows. Yes, you pay twice as much, but the experience improves exponentially.) Evans was particularly intense. I recall Russell's interpretation of Dot was very different than what I had seen of Bernadette Peters on the DVD recording. Russell played Dot more sweet and bumbling compared to Peters' feisty portrayal. People say that SITPWG is a sobfest and indeed, I found myself crying (probably during "Children and Art"). I'd never been so moved during a theater production. This was also the first time I had ever stagedoored. Daniel Evans didn't really want to sign; he seemed irritated and wanted to run away with his shopping bag. I tried to tell him how much I admired his "intense" acting and he didn't seem particularly impressed by my compliment. But Jenna Russell saw us kids standing in the rain and felt really touched that we waited for her. She was just as sweet as her character.

A couple months later, I took a friend to see it again from the first or second row of the mezzanine. It didn't seem quite as moving the second time, especially from farther back. I had hoped that my friend, an artist, would like the dramatization of a life in art, but she didn't seem to like it that much, though she admitted that the ideas were very "creative." Still, when I think about an ideal night at the theatre, I think of Sondheim and SITPWG. A+

Sweeney Todd (March 2008)
Thursday evening, Orchestra M30, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (national tour)

This was actually the national tour of Sweeney Todd, but the same production as seen on Broadway. Back then, I had just become a huge Sondheim fan, particularly after I saw the Sweeney Todd stage and concert DVDs. It was too late to see the show on Broadway but the tour was still going around. I convinced my sister to see it with me in LA. Our seats were in the mid-orchestra. We both liked it, though I preferred the original staging from 1979. I thought the John Doyle actor-musician concept was interesting, but too gimicky and distracting. At the national tour, Mrs. Lovett was played by Judy Kaye and Sweeney was played by David Hess. My sister claimed that she saw Steven Spielburg (or maybe it was George Lucas?) in the audience. B+

Gypsy (May 2008)
Tuesday evening, Orchestra D105, St. James Theatre, New York (Broadway)

Following my experience with SITPWG, I knew what it took to get a great ticket to a hot show. I wanted to give the cast sometime to settle into their performances but I didn't want to see them too late when they were worn out. Patti Lupone had very good reviews from City Center and there was a lot of buzz about the transfer of the show to Broadway. The first day Gypsy tickets were available online, I jumped on them and got fourth row seats orchestra center. I chose a Tuesday evening performance on the theory that the audience would be made up of sophisticated New Yorkers (as opposed to tourists). Also, Much later, I found out that May is high season for Broadway shows. It's the best time to see them because it's after the Tony Award nominations are announced and the cast is scrambling to turn in.

I don't remember a lot about the show intellectually, despite the fact that I had watched a couple of the Gypsy films to familiarize myself with the material. The show was just an emotional blur of incredible excitement. When Patti Lupone (Rose) made her entrance, everyone started applauding. I had no idea this kind of thing happened and I learned another new theater tradition that day: entrance applause for a diva. I remember Laura Benanti (Louise) and Leigh Ann Larkin's (June) amazing voices and harmonies. I remember being in awe of Patti Lupone tearing up the letter at the end of ACT I's showstopper "Everything's Coming Up Roses." At intermission, I walked up to the stage and stared at the little scraps of paper, tempted to grab them as a souvenir. After the show, I met Boyd Gaines (Herbie). He was very gracious and down-to-earth. I told him that I had a friend who did a show with him and he asked me what show but I had forgotten. When Patti Lupone came out of the stage door, it was pretty hectic and she only had time to scribble her initials "PL" on my Playbill. I was very thankful nonetheless.

Three days after the show, I emailed Lupone at her fan page. I wrote that she and her supporting cast were brilliant, that I appreciated her signing my Playbill, and that I hoped she might have a performance recorded on Great Performances. She wrote back the next day and told me how much she appreciated my compliments. She said she would love to have the show recorded but it wasn't up to her. And sadly, the show was never recorded. A+

The Visit (May 2008)
Sunday evening, Right E12, Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia

Technically, this was not a Broadway show, but it was a tryout which had the potential to transfer to Broadway. Plus, it was written by Kander and Ebb and featured Tony Award winning actors George Hearn and Chita Rivera. I saw it at the Signature Theatre in the DC area when I was visiting my cousin's family. It was my first time seeing something at a first-rate regional theater in a small venue (about 300 seats) -- which was very cool. Unfortunately, I just didn't really like the musical. It was adapted from a play and I felt like the music didn't add much. It should have stayed a play. I was surprised by how informal things are at a regional show. My cousin and I met a woman who was the wife of one of the actors. The actors just came out into the lobby after the show (none of the crazy stagedooring I was used to at a Broadway production). I got George Hearn's signature and made the mistake of complimenting him on his work in Sweeney Todd. His response was "this show is good, too." Oops. I guess I won't be making that social slipup again. B

Rent (August 2008)
Sunday matinee, Center mezzanine A108, Nederlander Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I caught a Sunday matinee performance of Rent, the month before it closed on Broadway. Will Chase (as Roger) and Eden Espinosa (as Maureen) were in it, but obviously they didn't make much of an impression because I didn't even know until I looked at my records today. All I remember is that the music was really loud and I felt like I could have spent my time and money better. It probably didn't help that Rent seems so dated now. C

In the Heights (November 2008)
Sunday matinee, Front mezzanine B108, Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I got caught up in the Tony hype for In the Heights especially after I saw the clip of the recording studio performance of "96,000." I guess there was so much buzz that it was hard to find good seats. Plus, I made plans to see it with my friend, who wasn't going home to New York until the fall. So I got tickets for November, which in retrospect, was a bad idea. The cast seemed tired by then and it didn't help that we weren't sitting that close. Maybe they were tired because it was a Sunday matinee. Still, I was glad that we saw most of the original cast including Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer and star of the musical), Mandy Gonzalez (an awesome belter), Christopher Jackson, Robin de Jesús (Tony nominee), and Priscilla Lopez (original cast member of A Chorus Line). Karen Olivo had moved on to West Side Story. I thought my friend who like the modern score and the rap songs, but she didn't seem impressed. Now I know that musical theater's version of contemporary music (pop, rock, rap, etc) is not the same. Another failed attempt to show a friend a good time at a Broadway musical. B

August: Osage County (February 2009)
Wednesday matinee, Orchestra D106, Music Box Theatre, New York (Broadway)

This was my first Broadway play and not a good introduction. As far as I could tell, it was a play about crazy people who were completely unrelatable. There were too many characters. It's a bad sign if I sit in the front and still dislike the work. And this won the Pulitzer? I was also kind of disappointed to get the understudy for the lead role of Violet. Actually, she was very good, but I learned not to get matinee tickets because there'a a significant probability of getting the understudy. C

Mendelssohn and Mahler, LA Philharmonic (March 2009)
Sunday evening, Balcony C138, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

I went to see this concert with my sister. I didn't know anything about Mendelssohn or Mahler symphonies but they had a pre-concert talk to explain it to us. I had no idea that that are Mahler fanatics. The performance was pretty awesome and I was exposed to music I wouldn't normally listen to. Another plus was getting to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which has fantastic acoustics and amazing architecture. We took the architecture tour before the concert.

Unless I go see some hip musical, I tend to see older people at the theater. But that did not prepare me for a crowd who was all 60+ at the symphony. I was really shocked. If this is what it's like in LA with a top-10 symphony, I can't imagine that orchestras are going to survive much longer. It's truly frightening. A

Wagner's Ring Cycle (May 2009)
Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday evening, Family Circle standing room, Metropolitan Opera, New York

This was the opera experience of my life. After attending the Ring Cycle at the Met, it's okay if I never see another opera again. The friends I made at the rush line earlier for Don Giovanni told me how to get rush tickets for the Ring Cycle. I took the earliest train, which left at 4:11 am, getting into Manhattan at 5:47 am. From there, I took the subway to Lincoln Center and went to a place underground where a woman took my name to save my place. Then I went to a diner to eat breakfast and came back to get in line around 8 am. The box office opened at 10 am and I think I got my tickets before 11 am. What a steal, standing room tickets to see four Wagner operas for $100. It was the first time I had done standing room at the Met and I really liked it. Yes, I was at the top of the house as far back as you can go, but the sound was great, I could see everything and use my binoculars for closeups. Plus, what I hated about orchestra seat rush was that you had to wait for hours. For standing room rush, you just show up when the box office opens. There are also standing room tickets for the back of the orchestra section, but I wouldn't get those because the top half of the set is cut off from view. It wouldn't be fun to miss the rainbow bridge!

The Ring Cycle is considered the benchmark for a great opera company and I can see why. The insane, strenuous singing, the elaborate sets, enormous orchestra. I started to wonder if Siegfried ever left the stage and I noticed four harps in the pit. The most surprising experience I've ever had at the theater was during the finale of Götterdämmerung, when there are two set changes within five minutes. It was like the set just slammed onto the stage. I think my favorite was Die Valkürie, 'cause women warriors are cool. But Siegfried was also awesome, particularly the ringing hammer that is incorporated into the score. This Ring Cycle was particularly special because it was the last performance of the old Met production from the 1980s. Europeans really like it because it uses traditional staging and costumes. The new production (full of high-tech special effects) has gotten mixed reviews.

Some memories: 1) A European woman who hit me for talking on the cellphone during intermission. 2) A young Asian woman who I met in standing room. She asked me what I thought to the performance. I said I really liked Die Valkürie because I finally saw a strong woman character in the opera. She told me that unfortunately, this changes in the later operas, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. I also told her that I was disappointed that I didn't like Don Giovanni as a character. 3) A woman gave me her ticket to sit in the family circle. I tried to refuse it at first because I was quite happy in standing room, but she insisted and I accepted. I promptly fell asleep in that seat. Another reason to do standing room. A+

Don Giovanni (2009)
Family Circle, Metropolitan Opera, New York

This was the first Met opera I rushed. I heard about the Varis rush tickets which allow you get really nice orchestra seats. To be safe, I got to Lincoln Center around noon. The tickets aren't sold until around 5 pm, so that's a lot of waiting. Everyone in line seemed to be a die-hard opera fan and they gossiped about things like men lusting over Renée Fleming. One woman was reading a copy of the Opera News. The people were impressed that a young person like me came so early to rush and they were really nice and gave me tips about rushing. I can't remember what I did to pass the time, but I was prepared with a folding chair.

Unfortunately, the waiting made me so tired that despite getting the coveted rush ticket (I also got an extra for my aunt), I fell asleep during the performance. Don Giovanni is supposed to one of the best operas ever written. But I have no way to judge. The parts I did see I didn't really enjoy, maybe because Don Giovanni himself is a pretty nasty character.

Despite my fatigue, I met some really cool people including an older man who lived out near Stamford. He claimed that he came to the opera to escape his mother -- pretty amusing. no grade (since I fell asleep)

Wicked (2009)
Gershwin Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I can't even find my Playbill for this show. That bad, huh. Wicked seemed like the obligatory hit show I need to see at least once. I could never find good seats, but then the recession hit and I was able to score fourth row. Yes, it had big impressive sets, but other than that, I didn't find it particularly compelling. I never connect with or enjoy teen "high school" stories. The songs weren't that great, and the characters weren't well-developed, more like placeholders for teenage angst. C-

A Gala Evening with Kristin Chenoweth (May 2009)
Monday evening, Mezzanine B215, New York City Center

Technically, this was not a Broadway show. It was a concert at the New York City Center. I'm a great admirer of Kristin Chenoweth and wanted to see her. It was a good show and she did some of the songs I saw in the video of her concert with the Boston Pops. Unfortunately, the acoustics at New York City Center suck. Kristin loves her fans, so she came out to sign afterwards. I snickered a bit when a young girl complained that she sang too much "old" stuff and nothing contemporary like from Wicked. I was the last one to get my program signed. I was grateful that Kristin signed her full name. B

West Side Story (May 2009)
Tuesday matinee, Orchestra B116, New York (Broadway)

Another Tuesday matinee. I sense a pattern here: easier to get tickets for Tuesday night than any other night of the week. I didn't buy these tickets myself. My friend who lives in Manhattan dropped by the box office and they were able to find these awesome seats near the front. So my friend (finally a theatre-goer) and I went to see it. It was impressive to see real dance in a musical. It made us realize how much we missed it. I guess if musical theatre is supposed to be a dying art, dance must be in even worse straits. The leads, Josefina Scaglione (Maria) and Matt Cavenaugh (Tony), were good but I don't recall them being remarkable. Karen Olivo (Anita) had great energy and looked fantastic in her purple dress. No surprise that she later won a Tony Award for best supporting actress in a musical. When Olivo came out for the curtain call, we noticed that she had put on the purple dress again. My friend and I remarked, "She really likes that dress, doesn't she?" The production was also notable for using Spanish lyrics in some songs. All in all, a satisfying night of theater. A

Twelfth Night (July 2009)
Saturday evening, Section J Row U Seat 601, Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York

Ah, this was my first experience of Shakespeare in the Park, a summertime New Yorker tradition. I think Twelfth Night is considered Shakespeare's most popular comedy. Some notable members of the cast: Anne Hathaway (as Viola), Raul Esparza (as Orsino), and Audra McDonald (as Olivia). Anne Hathaway, the A-list movie star, was probably the biggest attraction and Ben Brantley's rave reviews probably also gave the production a huge boost.

I had been thinking about going to see it, but like all Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park productions, you need to line up for tickets the day of the performance. Finally, the last week rolled around, my friend's mom was in town. So I decided to go for it and line up for tickets. At the beginning of the run, you needed to line up at 6 am. Now, at the end, people were reportedly camping overnight on the street. I prepared by bringing a folding chair and my Nintendo DS Lite. That night, I checked Craiglist and saw that someone mentioned their campers were in line at 11 pm to get tickets. I thought "crap!" and immediately got on the subway. Unfortunately, I left after midnight so it was tricky getting to Central Park (subway runs much less frequently after 12 am). I finally got in line around 1 am, on the street outside Central Park. People were clearly more prepared than I. They brought tents, sleeping bags, games, musical instruments, etc. Then there were people like this Indian guy who showed up with nothing except a book and slept on the concrete sidewalk. Sometime around 6 am, they moved the entire line inside the park. Tickets were handed out around noon. Despite being in line for almost 12 hours, I didn't even get a real ticket, but a standby voucher. I came back about a half hour before the performance to see if I got the standby tickets and fortunately I got them! One for me and one for my friend's mom.

As for the performance itself, it was fantastic and kudos to the sound engineers at Delacorte Theater for the best sound I've ever experienced at the theater. My friend's mom had a blast, I had an adventure, and we both had memories to cherish. A+

Promises, Promises (May 2010)
Tuesday evening, Orchestra E109, Broadway Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I went to this show, solely to see Kristin Chenoweth. It was a huge disappointment. Chenoweth (who played Fran) was so skinny that I was concerned for her health. The music was pretty dull, not my kind of thing at least. Sean Hayes (a TV star who played Chuck Baxter) was good, but I'm not really a comedy person, so his slapstick was lost on me. Promises, Promises seemed so dated. Since when is suicide funny? My unhappiness with this show drove me away from the theater for a while. C+

Come Fly Away (June 2010)
Friday evening, Orchestra M4, Marquis Theatre, New York (Broadway)

My sister was visiting for a week, so I had a pretty restricted window to get tickets. Hence the unusual Friday night time. Since my sister loves dance, we went to a bunch of dance shows. The first was Twyla Tharp's Come Fly Away. I enjoyed the Sinatra music and the dance was pretty good. I'm not super into dance, so it didn't blow me away. Still, a good night. B+

By Popular Demand, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (June 2010)
Saturday matinee, Orchestra D16, Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn

I tried to squeeze in one more dance show for my sister and I found out about a distinguished New York dance troupe by the name of Alvin Ailey. This was my first time seeing a show in Brooklyn. There was a lot of variety in the dances, and I found it more interesting than Twyla Tharp's choreography in Come Fly Away. I had a good time, despite knowing nothing about dance. At one point, I fell asleep despite the loud music, but that was due to fatigue and not boredom. A-

Billy Elliot (June 2010)
Sunday evening, Orchestra N114, Imperial Theatre, New York (Broadway)

My sister loves Billy Elliot, so I got tickets for us to see it. There really weren't any great seats. I even went to the box office to see if there was something that hadn't popped up on Ticketmaster, but to no avail. The music was largely forgettable, the comedy was lame, a couple scenes were offputting, and the dance was cool, but there wasn't enough of it. I think my sister had a good time though. C+

Carmen (November 2010)
Wednesday evening, Family Circle B114, Metropolitan Opera, New York

I specifically bought this ticket to see the acclaimed performance of Elina Garanca. She was as great as advertised. After seeing this production, I have to put Carmen in my pantheon of favorite stand-alone operas along with The Marriage of Figaro and Tannhäuser. Yay, a strong woman role and more importantly, one of two great roles for mezzo-sopranos (I feel really sorry for them). Carmen is one of the few roles where strong acting really sparkles. A

Follies (October 2011)
Tuesday evening, Orchestra B107, Marquis Theatre, New York (Broadway)

At this point, I was sort of "Sondheimed out," but Follies is almost never put on, much less on Broadway. I skipped seeing A Little Night Music, but I dragged myself to see Follies. The day before I went to the library to get the Follies concert documentary and libretto and listened to the songs on Rhapsody in a furious cram session. I was familiar with a few songs from the Sondheim 80th birthday concert like "Losing My Mind" and "Could I Leave You?"

The cast was a distinguished group including Broadway legend Bernadette Peters (Sally), Jan Maxwell (Phyllis), Danny Burstein (Buddy), and Ron Raines (Ben). Still, I wasn't sure what to expect. The critics were relatively positive about the cast in DC, so that was a good sign. Follies was fun, but I understand now why people say it has a weak book. It felt like we were lurching from cabaret solo to cabaret solo. Janye Houdyshell gave a rousing, enthusiastic rendition of "Broadway Baby." Terri White led the ensemble in an energetic delivery of "Who's That Woman?" I wasn't too keen on Elaine Paige's diva-ish "I'm Still Here." Peters and Raines were good as the Stone couple, but I wasn't crazy about them. Peters sang "Losing My Mind" in tears, which wasn't to my taste, though a valid acting decision. My favorite was Danny Burstein. I could see the sweat on his face as he did the frantic "Buddy's Blues" number. Jan Maxwell was very good, but I already saw Donna Murphy in video clips of the same role, so that spoiled it for me. One thing I liked was the staging, particularly the spectacular colorful sets in Act II. That's really something you can only see on Broadway since Follies is so expensive to put on.

I took my time getting to the stage door, but I was able to catch Terri White and compliment her on the fun ensemble number she led. I also got Bernadette Peter's autograph, but I didn't get to say anything to her since she was busy talking to a friend. The other cast members fled out a different entrance or left early, so that was a bummer not to catch Danny Burstein or some of the other performers. Despite a few disappointments, it was a rare treat to see Follies and Bernadette Peters, so I have to give the night high marks. A

Final tally: 12 Broadway shows, 1 Shakespeare in the Park show at Public Theater, 2 non-Broadway New York shows, 1 Broadway show on national tour, 1 regional show, 9 operas, and 1 symphony concert. A total of 27 shows in 6 years. Not included a couple Shakespeare plays I saw in the 3 years prior.

12 March 2012

Favorite actor-singers

  • Kristin Chenoweth - great comic actor, operatically trained voice which makes everything sound easy, transitions effortlessly between pop/jazz/opera/legit musical theatre
  • Victoria Clark - has such a sweetness and optimism in her mannerisms and singing
  • Audra McDonald - has a voice to die for and four Tonys to prove her acting prowess, love her muscular arms
  • Kelli O'Hara - classically beautiful soprano, exudes class and professionalism
  • Marin Mazzie - beautiful, classically-trained voice with impeccable technique, fantastic dramatic actor (especially Sondheim), does my favorite rendition of "Losing My Mind"
  • Megan Hilty - just getting familiar with her, but she's great on Smash
  • Alice Ripley - known for her unique voice and intense belt (check out her belt face), probably the most versatile performer on this list, equally comfortable singing legit/pop/rock and doing comedy or drama, gives my all-time favorite performance in next to normal
  • Jenna Russell - great actor, saw her in Sunday in the Park with George
  • Raúl Esparza - unique, rich voice, great acting in Company
  • Brian d'Arcy James - fantastic, rich voice with impeccable technique (watch his mouth when he sings "I've Been"), touching performance in next to normal
  • George Hearn - Mr. Sweeney Todd!, near-operatic, classically trained booming voice
Actor-singer pretty much means musical theatre, though Carmen is a fine operatic acting role. I notice a lot of sopranos on my list. Maybe I like that voice type, because all the contemporary music is squashed into the alto-tenor range. Musical theatre is getting that way, too. It seems like all the guys sing tenor and all the women sing mezzo-soprano. Musical theatre composers: please write more roles for baritones and sopranos (I mean legit soprano roles, not sopranos singing low)! Altos and basses, too! We want variety in our singing.

06 March 2012

Backwards skating

I'm a terrible backwards skater and I finally decided to think about how to improve. Here are some things I've learned.

Backward stride

  1. Glide backward on the flats of both skates.
  2. Prepare to push with your leg. Place your weight above the pushing skate.
  3. Pivot the pushing skate outward with the heel facing out to the side. You want the pushing foot to be nearly at a right angle with respect to your gliding foot.
  4. Dig the inside edge of the pushing skate into the ice by rolling your ankle and bending the knee so that the skate and lower leg form a 45 degree angle to the ice. Make sure your full body weight is concentrated over the pushing skate.
  1. Start the c-cut. Use the front half of the blade to push.
  2. Start the push from the middle of the inside edge and finish at the toe. Drive the pushing leg against the edge, using a forceful snapping action of the leg.
  3. The push must executed with full extension of the leg, finishing with a toe flick of the inside edge. Your knee should lock out.
  4. At the midpoint of the c-cut, transfer your weight from your pushing skate onto the gliding skate. When you skate backwards, your body weight should be over the back half of the gliding blade. However, the entire blade of the gliding skate stays in contact with the ice.
  1. Keep the entire blade length of the pushing skate on the ice after the thrust is completed.
  2. Keep the knee of the gliding leg well bent, even when the thrusting leg is extended.
  3. Keep the gliding skate pointing straight backward all through the c-cut, with the entire blade length in contact with the ice.
  1. It's imperative that you do a proper recovery, so that your pushing foot is in the right position for the next c-cut.
  2. After the thrusting leg reaches full extension, re-pivot the foot to face inward.
  3. Pull the returning skate under your center of gravity and re-pivot your foot again when your foot gets under your body. You foot will make a larger arc as it returns and a small arc as you re-pivot under your body. Keep the entire skate blade on the ice as you complete the return.
  4. After the return, your skates should be side by side and under your body. You should not have one skate in front of the other. If that happens, you might end up zig-zagging down the ice.
  5. Now you are ready to do the next c-cut.
Key points and discussion

The most important thing to do is to get low. You want to bend your knees so much that they extend two inches forward of your toes. Imagine trying to bend your knees so much that your knees nearly touch your chest. Or imagine getting so low that you sit on the floor. Yes, get that low. And yes, it's exhausting. It takes much more effort and energy to skate backwards than forwards.

The second key point is to pivot your foot 90 degrees before you start the c-cut. It's hard to get power if your foot is at a shallow angle when you begin the c-cut. You want your foot to start perpendicular if possible. This requires some flexibility.

The reason you need to pivot your foot perpendicular is so that you can made a wide c-cut with a large radius. What you don't want is a c-cut with a small radius. The wider you can make your c-cut the more push you get.

The third key point is to get as close to 100% body weight on the pushing (cutting) skate as possible. To practice this, you can do c-cuts down the ice on one leg at a time. This will help you learn how to balance on your inside edge going backwards. It's similar to the power skating exercise where you glide on your inside edges, making half circles up the ice. The difference is that now you do it backwards.

You might have trouble getting full extension of your leg on the c-cut. This is a matter of balance. Make sure you do the things already discussed -- a) get as low as possible and b) get full body weight on the pushing skate.

A former Division I and Olympic player gave me the following advice. Don't skate pretty. Don't make beautiful c-cuts. Your goal is to skate with power and efficiency. You want to concentrate on pushing as hard as you can (explosively) on the first 1/3 of the push. As you push, thrust your leg out hard to full extension. As soon as you get to full extension, shift your weight to your gliding foot. I found that if I didn't shift my weight fast enough, I would lose my edge to the pushing foot.

When you start getting good at your c-cuts, you'll find yourself zig-zagging down the ice. Keep the gliding foot pointing straight backwards. You want to go backwards in a straight line, not a zig-zag. According to Laura Stamm, it's not possible to go backwards in an exact straight line, there will be a slight curve.

Remember to keep your skate blades on the ice. They should not lift up at any point during the backward stride.

The proper posture is to bend your knees as much as possible, keep your shoulders back, your back straight, and your head up. If you don't have a stick (for example, if you're practice at public skating where sticks aren't allowed), imagine holding a stick.

Keep the upper body and head still, except for the arms.

As you skate, move your arms in sync with your legs. As one leg makes a c-cut, move the arm, on the same side, forward while the opposite arm drives back. For example, if you make a c-cut with your left leg, move your left arm forward and drive your right arm back. The arms should move parallel to your body and not be swinging side to side.

Robby Glantz suggests that you practice the return, you should click your feet together. Of course, this is only when you practice, not in a real game situation.

A friend of mine who played Division I hockey had the following suggestion. When you first learn the backward stride, exaggerate the twisting hip motion.

Another thing you can try is to do forward c-cuts for practice.

Backward starts

There are two types of backwards starts: the straight backward start and the backward crossover start.

The straight backward start is pretty much like the normal backward stride. The difference is that you move your legs as rapidly as possible, while still making proper c-cuts at full extension and recovering. You do everything faster (push, recovery, etc), at a quicker tempo.

For the backward crossover start, you do a backward crossover followed by fast backward strides. It's debatable how many crossovers you should do. Some people suggest doing just one crossover, while I've seen other people recommend doing two crossovers in one direction and one more crossover in the opposite direction to straighten out.

Be very careful about using the crossover backward start. When you do a backward crossover before the forward has picked a direction, you have made the first move and the forward might blow past you. Several Division I players tell me that you actually start slower if you do a crossover. If you need to get back quickly, do a straight backward start. If you need to move laterally and have time, do the crossover start.


There are a couple things you can do to help people one-on-one. You can hold your stick above their head to force them to stay low. You can also have them hold their stick on one end with both hands while you hold the other end of the stick. They skate backwards while you provide resistance to help them keep their balance.

As mentioned before, to practice balancing on one leg and getting full body weight on the c-cut, practice making backward c-cuts down the ice and alternating legs, balancing on the cutting leg.

If you have a lot of players and not too much space, you can have the players lay their sticks on the ice and practicing doing c-cuts with their gliding foot gliding parallel to the stick. This helps teach people to keep their gliding foot pointing straight backward. You can have them do forward c-cuts, backward c-cuts, or both.

Finally, when the players are more advanced, you can have them play defense in one-on-one situations.


Laura Stamm, Laura Stamm's Power Skating (3rd ed), 2001.
Robby Glantz Secrets of Hockey Speed, Vol 1 - "Backward stride"
Laura Stamm - "Smooth powerful stride", 7:45