Monthly Archives: February 2008

Leap Day

Happy Leap Day!

Leap year is one of those funny idiosyncratic facets of humanity that makes me love us so much. A lot of those peculiarities have to do with time: daylight saving time, work weeks, lunch time, clocks, and even time itself are all a little bit strange if you think about them enough.

Does anyone remember The Pirates of Penzance? I think that movie is my earliest memory of an on-screen kiss. Plus there’s a cool application of the leap-year phenomenon when the main character realizes he’s a lot younger than he appears because he was born on a Leap Day (I know that this isn’t how it actually works, but this is probably the means through which I actually learned what a Leap Year is).

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Posted by on February 29, 2008 in Entertainment


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Spy in the Base

eBay is sketchy. Every time I complete a transaction, I sort of expect the worst. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when I ordered The Orange Box (PC version), and the installation key they included with the game didn’t work because it had already been used. The seller was legit about it though; he emailed me a working replacement key which theoretically cannot be used again now that it’s associated with my Steam Account.

The game is good. Really good. Good enough that I’m considering getting the XBOX version as well, so that I can play Team Fortress 2 with my XBOX friends (waiting for some kind of signal from them that they are actually interested in playing it though). I beat Portal over the course of a week, even though I’ve seen the whole thing on YouTube. Knowing what was going to happen put a slight damper on the experience, but it was still fun. Hearing the Portal Song, “Still Alive”, in-game… earning it with my own sweat and nausea… made me a little emotional. Team Fortress 2 has been a delight. I’m terrible at it, but the class-based FPS has a lot of depth. All this praise and I haven’t even installed Half-Life 2, ostensibly the biggest draw of The Orange Box for many gamers.

In general I shun these games because they make me sick, but TF2 has actually been easier to handle than some others (Gears of War, for example), and I think it’s because of the “cartoony” design. This would explain why I never had trouble with Doom or Marathon on my old Macintosh, but when Half-Life came out for the PC I was instantly vertigoed. There’s something about the high detail level that is more vertigo-inducing.

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Posted by on February 27, 2008 in Entertainment


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Girls Disrupt Flight, Assume It’s Because They Look So Good

“… they were just discriminating against us because we were young, decent looking girls. I mean, no one else really on the plane looked like us, except us.” – Sarah Williams, victim of her own beauty.

See the CNN report here.  I don’t know what’s worse, CNN carrying this story, or me carrying this story.


Posted by on February 26, 2008 in Entertainment


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This Post May Contain Strong Language (But it Probably Does Not)

The conversation usually goes like this:

Friend: Wow. Did you hear the way so-and-so cursed me out back there? That was pretty bad.

Me: Yeah he sounded pissed.

Friend: Nobody’s ever spoken to me like that in my life, and I think I’m sort of sensitive to it since I don’t like to curse.

Me: I know what you mean – I don’t ever swear.

Friend: Yeah, I never swear either.

Me: No, I mean, I can count the number of swears I’ve said out loud in my entire life on one hand.

Friend: Yeah me… Wait what? Oh… What…? wow.

A post Dan put up about swearing has been on my mind for several months now. I was recently reminded of it when the topic of swearing on blogs came up here. I like learning about why swears are considered swears, because I don’t swear, but I don’t know why.


It feels awkward that I know this about myself, or that I have such an internal track record. I recognize that the words I have grown to count as swears are somewhat arbitrary (the ones I can think of start with f, a, s, h, b, and sometimes d). Avoiding these words can be hard; I remember dreading English classes where we read books out loud, because there was always a possibility that I would have to either break my streak or feign a coma. Somehow I manage to avoid typing these words explicitly (though copy/pasting them feels OK), but I admit that it feels strange when I type words like assist, as if I have to type them really quickly without pausing in the middle.

The silly part is that, like the children and teens we’re ostensibly trying to protect by censoring these words, I think swears all the time. Beyond that, I have no problem hearing them! They can often be best way to express yourself, and I sometimes find myself wishing I could use them (I can use them of course, but I’ve built up a mental hurdle about it). In the past few years I’ve resorted to using the cheat-words that often serve as swear replacements (e.g. “That’s freaking awesome”).

I’m not sure when I created this rule for myself. Obviously swearing was always discouraged at home and school. I do have one memory from my childhood of my younger brother telling my mother that I had said a swear (when I had not actually done so) and getting punished for it. The injustice of the situation was so infuriating, because not only had I not committed the crime in question — I had never sworn at all!

Occasionally I think I should just go into a room an swear my lungs out, just to get over the hurdle. I honestly don’t know why I haven’t done that.

[For completeness, most of the situations where I swore came at times when I was inadvertently (as in, without thinking) parroting something that someone near me said.]


Posted by on February 25, 2008 in Garbage In, Garbage Out


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Blogging as a Way to Think

A few days ago I wrote about some blogging tips I had gleaned from a talk by Ancient Wisdom Productions. I alluded to what some of my reasons for blogging have been, though that wasn’t exactly the reason for the post.

Today I saw a video of Clive Thompson talking about why he blogs (link via Baxt), and I think I have a lot in common with his motivation. As Clive explains:

I do it to sort of record stuff that I’m interested in, that I see, what I think about it. It helps me like literally think ideas out… I know [a concept] intrigues me, I don’t know why. As I write the blog entry, I literally develop the thoughts. So it’s a way of developing my thoughts, and recording them, so that you know, months later, I can look back and remember, and re-experience the stuff that I was interested in.

The focus of the interview was science and technology blogging, but I think the same reasons are broadly applicable. He also touches on the important aspect of user feedback, and reminds us that if you don’t want to blog, you don’t have to.


Posted by on February 22, 2008 in Alchemy


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Filing System for Research Papers

The Inbox Zero Google Talk recently inspired me to get my research life organized. E-mail organization was a logical place to start, and my desire to try to keep a low number of messages in my e-mail inbox was easily adaptable to the “process down to zero” method promoted by Inbox Zero.

Now I’ve moved on to research papers. For the last several years, I have collected papers in various places (PDFs in a references file, printouts all over the place). When I actually need to organize these for some reason (i.e., to write a paper), I typically go and download all the citations into either Endnote or Jabref, and then assign each paper a unique 5-digit ID number. Then, I put that ID number in the ‘label’ field in Endnote, and keep the PDFs and papers sorted by ID number in my computer and/or filing cabinet.

This system is great for finding things fast, as long as I know what I’m looking for. However, if I want a number of papers on a particular topic (let’s say, ‘synthetic biology’), I either need to do some searching within Endnote (which can be hit-or-miss), or I have to know by memory who wrote the papers on a particular topic, search for those authors in Endnote, and then retrieve the papers by their 5-digit ID number (my memory doesn’t do well at this).

In the end, I duplicate a lot of effort in finding papers that I’ve already “found”.

I’ve done a bit of googling on this topic, but nothing convincing has come up. The best resource I’ve found was at Ask Metafilter, and it’s pretty weak. Some of the possibilities I’m considering are:

  • File by category – This works well for quickly finding a set of papers on a particular topic, but it can fail when one paper belongs in multiple categories (either you won’t find it in the folder where you think it should be, or you will have multiple copies of papers in your file).
  • File by author – This has a lot of the same drawbacks as filing by ID number, but the added advantage of forcing you to think more about who writes what, and becoming more familiar with their names.
  • File everything electronically – This scares me, because I still prefer reading papers on paper. However, it would greatly simplify the storage and searching process. How bad is it for the environment if I just print a paper every time I need to see it?

If you are faced with the same problem, or a similar one, I’m curious to hear how you handle it. I know no system will work for everyone, but I’d love to try something that simplifies and streamlines the process. I’m also interested in comments about particular software or processing steps that you like.


Posted by on February 21, 2008 in Alchemy


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kk houz winz

My first lolcat, created as part of the icanhazcheezburger poker cats contest (link below):

crazy, funny pix

For details, see the online Poker Cats Contest. Also see the blog of the contest creator.

I think this means I’ve finally accepted Web 2.0… and lost my last shred of dignity.

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Posted by on February 20, 2008 in Entertainment


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Ancient Blogging Wisdom

A little less than a year and a half ago, I decided to start a blog so that people I know could have a small window looking out over the events of my life, and so that people I don’t know could have the chance to cut me down for expressing my thoughts on the internet.  Really, I started it on a whim.  I thought that writing about nothing and everything might help me feel better about the parts of my life with which I wasn’t totally happy.  And I think it did partially serve that purpose.  Expressing my thoughts in a place outside my head seems to engage a different, underused, part of my brain, and that’s been cathartic.  I still blog for those reasons, but the focus and applicability has been expanded.

Today’s topic in the Science Communication Workshop that I’m taking was “Web Media and Making Your Research Homepage/Blog”. Most of the discussion revolved around blogs, why one might be interested in reading blogs, and how/why one might write a blog.  Bruce, the instructor, gave us a primer on blogging, and we were also treated to a blog design presentation from Molly, Tyler, and Casey of Ancient Wisdom Productions.  I came away with a renewed enthusiasm for blogging, and a list of useful tips from the AWP reps:

  • “Design matters” – This was definitely the focus of the AWP talk, but probably the part I will think about the least.  What font we should use.  What line spacing we should use.  How the colors we choose should contrast.  Information hierarchy. It’s a lot, and I really do truly believe that it matters. However, I’m probably going to ignore anything that WordPress takes care of for me (for now, anyways). Someday I hope to be able to pay someone lots of money to make my ideas look pretty.
  • “It’s All About Content”– They recommended blogging a lot, at least once post per day if you want to keep people reading.  This makes sense – I know I am much more likely to come back to blogs that update regularly.  Some blogs seem to update too frequently (this is an arbitrary descriptor, and depends on mood, interest, and attention span).  For example, I (personally) couldn’t keep up with the frequency and length of posts at Dooce, so I had to remove it from my RSS feed (I still browse over there manually though). 
  • “Don’t Be Afraid to Swear”– This one reminds me of a post I’ve been meaning to write about swearing, but I think the take home point is that blogs do well when they have some character. 
  • “Blog for the Moment”– They explained that most people judge a blog by what’s in the most recent posts, and that digging through the archives is relatively rare.  This may be true, but I also know that most traffic that comes to this blog is via keywords that have only appeared in single posts in the archives.  I wish I had a better idea if that traffic ends up visiting the “home” link.
  • “Tag the F out of your posts”– After the presentation I asked what their recommendation for tagging and categories was.  They said they liked to have a limited list of post categories, with no more than one category per post.  At the same time, they recommended adding as many one-word tags as you can think of.  Now that WordPress has actually separated tags and categories, this is doable and also sort of fun. 

One of the most interesting impressions I gleaned from the session was that a significant portion of the class is quite anti-blogging.  They think that most blogs are junk, and that the comments are even worse.  They might be right, but I disagree with their (apparent) conclusion that the junk makes blogging less worthwhile. 

First and foremost, our goal in this course is to communicate science to everyone (or at least, to as many people as possible).  That includes the people writing, reading, and commenting on junk blogs.  Communicators of science will almost certainly have to explain ideas to people who don’t get it, don’t care, or just aren’t nice, but whose opinions still matter.  I think blogging is good practice for this.

Secondly, the junk can be amusing.  Read stupid comments.  Respond to peoples’ nonsense.  Get in an argument with someone you don’t know and will never meet.  But, to quote Wil Wheaton, “Don’t be a dick!”.


Posted by on February 20, 2008 in Alchemy


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Introducing Nagyecsed

Minassian posted a neat idea for randomly generating your own faux album cover (she apparently saw it at CuriousMitch), and I decided to give it a shot.

Introducing…  Nagyecsed!

Question of Their Intentions Album Cover

Rock on.  This cover reminds me of the hyptontizing and creepy Adidas/adicolor Pink video.

(Photo credit)

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Posted by on February 8, 2008 in Entertainment


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Visual Acuity

Last week I had an eye exam and got my new lens prescription filled. I decided to reuse my old frames to save a bit on the new glasses. The woman who sells the frames and lenses was pushy and irrational as usual. For example, consider this exchange where we discussed the anti-reflective coating for my lenses (the woman’s name is Pat):

Pat: Ok, so you can either get the anti-reflective coat put on my the manufacturer, or you can get ours.

Me: Oh ok. What’s the difference?

Pat: They are totally the same.

Me: I see. Is there a cost difference?

Pat: Oh, well ours is just $8 more.

Me: Well, since they’re the same, I guess I’ll go for the cheaper one from the manufacturer.

Pat: … but the warranty on ours is better.

Me: Huh? Howso?

Pat: Yeah. It’s just better.

Me: That’s alright, I’ll go with the one from the manufacturer.

Pat: ooook. If you say so.

This nonsensical behavior is typical of Pat. The whole procedure of building the new lenses and putting them into the frames takes about a week. When I got a call from Pat this morning, I was expecting to hear that they were ready.

Pat: Hi this is Pat from Dr. Markowitz’s office.

Me: Hey Pat.

Pat: So as we suspected, your frames broke when they tried to put the new lenses in.

Me: I didn’t suspect anything like that, but ok go on.

Pat: So I remember that you had a second pair of the same frames. Would you like to use those or purchase new frames?

Me: Oh… welll, can the price I paid for the new lenses still be applied to the new frames?

Pat: Oh sure no problem!

Me: hmm… And is it possible to get a refund?

Pat: Well, they already made the lenses, and when you were here we discussed that the frames could break, because they are three to four years old, after all.

Me: We discussed no such thing.

Pat: Yes we did, I remember it very clearly.

Me: No, we did not discuss this at all.

Pat: In fact, you signed a release form saying that you understood that the frames might break. It’s right here in your file.

Me: Excuse me? No, I did not sign any release form. Do you have a copy of this form? Did you give me a copy of this form?

Pat: Well I’m looking for it in your file right now.

Me: I did not sign any release form, so you won’t find a release form in my file. I’d like a refund now please.

Pat: We discussed that the frames might break.

Me: ummm… Well, why don’t you give me the phone number of the company that produces the lenses, so that I can call them and get a refund.

Pat: You’d have to do a refund through us. I’ll have to have Dr. Markowitz call you back.

Me: Yes, please do so. *click*

The only paper I signed in their office was the receipt of services. It is possible that their receipt was also a release form in disguise, because they had me sign it while my pupils were dilated and I could not read anything. However, I have a copy of that receipt, and it’s just an itemized bill, so unless they did something unscrupulous to capture my signature onto a hidden second form, then they have no release form, and I want a refund.

The worst part is that I understand that these things happen, and I don’t really blame them (it’s not as if I’m asking them to replace my destroyed frames). If Pat had called and just told me what the deal was, rather than trying to scare me into buying their stuff by lying about a release form and a conversation that never happened, I would have been much more inclined to just give in and buy new frames.

Dr. Markowitz called me back a few minutes later. He gave me the same spiel as Pat, except with much less pressure and much more respect. I told him that I had already decided I want a refund, and he said he’d see what he could do. I also left him a complaint about Pat, and he half apologized and half defended her. I guess that’s the most I can hope for.


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This American Mystery Hunt

This American Life aired an excellent piece on the MIT Mystery Hunt tonight. They’ll have it up on their archive page for a few weeks, but the free downloadable version will probably only be up for a week. The story about the mystery hunt is act II of a three act show, and starts around minute 32.

Update: I’ve been informed that this is a rebroadcast of a piece they originally aired last year, with a slight update at the end stating who won this year’s hunt (The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight).

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Posted by on February 5, 2008 in Entertainment


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We Were Only Freshman

Running LogoI’ve been able to keep up my winter running so far this year. I’m hovering around 20 miles per week, and not forcing myself to go out if it just feels like to much. I try to do one speed workout per week, but it’s often not that long (e.g. 4×400, or 5×200).

At the local January Track meet, I ran a surprising 11:33.6 for the 2-mile. My goal had been to run under 12 minutes, and 11:33 was an awesome surprise. Afterwards a 5:30 mile seemed within my grasp and I started mentally prepping for that.

Yesterday was the February track meet, and I ran the mile. I had been trying to run my speed workouts at 5:20 pace to prepare for this race, but they were really hard. Even 200m at that pace felt like I was going all-out. So when I registered for the meet and entered my ‘predicted time’, I thought that my prediction of 5:25 was probably pushing it.

But somehow I did it. During the race I just focused on the huge digital clock at the start line, and made sure that every lap put me under 5:20 pace. Then with 2 laps to go I let all the rest of my gas burn and came through in 5:13!

This puts me in an interesting place going forward. I haven’t run 5:13 since high school, and my first time running that fast was probably my sophomore year (10+ years ago) . It feels like this could be the beginning of some really great racing for me. Or, it could be the beginning of a big downhill slump. In any case, 5:13 puts some new post-high school PRs in range… Eleven minute 2-miles and eighteen minute 5Ks suddenly seem possible again. That would be… That would be incredible.

I’m not too worried about the future though. I’m just going to focus on training frequency like before. I think if I can maintain a consistent schedule until it gets warm again I’m going to have a great running summer.


Posted by on February 4, 2008 in No Easy Days


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