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Mar. 9th, 2010

A LiveJournal Farewell

LiveJournal. Distinguished guest readers. My fellow Americans.

Long have I maintained the fort here, despite the exodus and my years of temptations to seek greener pastures. The other forts were more modern, better built, and brimming with populist exhuberance.

But I stood my ground against numerous personal wishes. We guardians of this fort have shared our days of secret handshakes at our protected posts, an advantage none of the technically superior offered. Some came close with a system of whispered passwords vulnerable should any spies or loose lips unravel them. The other forts lacked what we had - a system of trust based on understood friendship and comradry. But times have changed.

Communications between forts and its guards and citizens relies more heavily on people passively consuming a feed of information our fort syndicates on daily bulletins for simpler access.

Yet no longer do passersby leave comments and marks on the fort walls. No longer do the fellow guards and friends of this fort exchange friends-only knowledge over cordial handshakes. Our location has lost engagement from our followers.

Therefore, I am finally leaving this fort, being the last to turn off the lights. I'm headed to a fort I'm building myself, at a spot across the river I've been eyeing for some time, and I hope to see you at the other end.

Mar. 1st, 2010

Expertise

I typically don't reveal any of my core life strategies. And by "strategies", I mean guidelines and philosophies that I developed over a lifetime, and by which I live.

But here's one.

When I was younger, I found myself frustrated over the assumptions people make about each other's expertise in any subject. I typically found that, in most cases, people highly oversimplified their view of a person by grabbing onto one detail about him and augmenting it. They might conclude that his title as an engineer indicates a lack of skill in the arts. Or they might find that another's love for the arts indicates no interest or knowledge in the sciences.

I told myself that people fell into the trap of treating everyone else as one-dimensional characters because perhaps we human beings inherited this habit out of evolutionary necessity, in order to rapidly assess a situation or creature based on gists and feelings.

So years ago, I came up with this conclusion - if you want to prove your expertise or skill in any given area, become a creator or contributor.

You may be well-read in literary works with a mastery of the language, but if you write one yourself, your mastery is implied, instead of having to defend yourself over and over until others are convinced of the breath of said mastery.

You may know all the in's and out's of the art of photography, but if you shoot and share great photo artwork of your own, people again make valid assumptions about your capability. And the existence of creative work you produced takes away the awkwardness of narcissistic verbal defense, while allowing something others judging you can enjoy and use to decide for themselves.

This is really just another way of saying, "show, not tell". People are sovereign beings who don't like to be told what to think, and would rather be the judge of things, to form their own opinions and arrive at their own conclusions. If you really are a god in a field, they would have inferred the same thing anyway.

Dec. 3rd, 2009

Numeronyms

We have our share of terminology flying around at work, and "i18n" was frequently tossed around while discussing localization of various products for international markets.

But today, I decided to search online to look up the origins behind "i18n", and I came across this:

"...i18n (where 18 stands for the number of letters between the first i and last n in internationalization)"

Really? That's a bit of a letdown. The mystic 18 turned out to be no more than a letter count space filler between the first and last letters because apparently nobody could figure out a better abbreviation. It doesn't end there though. There's an entire family of these types of words called numeronyms. "K9" for "canine" is probably the most commonly known one, though that one was always adorable for its wordplay anyway.

However, many of the rest using letter omission counts just weren't that impressive, from "a11y" for "accessibility" to "i13s" for "interestingness". They're just testaments to the problem of abstraction people create when they decide to engage in alphabet soup. You're saving nobody any time in the long run by doing it.

Nov. 17th, 2009

The Leonids

In past years that I've tried to catch the Leonid meteor showers, either city light pollution or overcast weather stood in the way, but this time, I decided to make an effort to find a dark area. I chose the area beside the Chabot observatories deck, and lay on the grass gazing at the sky with Genevieve. At 40ish degrees Fahrenheit, it felt chilly for Bay Area weather, but the clear black night sky was worth the trouble.

I brought a Canon Rebel XSi and a tripod with the intention of taking my first star trail photo, but I later realized that I needed a wider angle lens than the one I had (EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS). I didn't have a fish eye lens though, so I settled with taking photos of the stars, something that was never possible when I only had access to point-and-shoots. Being a night shot like this, I used ISO 400, and set the aperture to f/4.5. I took the first of my 30 second shots with the camera body resting on my chest as I held my breath, as a test run. As expected, there was too much blur, and I eventually stood up to set up the tripod. Only then did I realize I forgot the plate piece to attach it to the camera itself. I set the tripod case on its side and used that to prop up the camera at an angle towards the sky, and snapped long exposure photos of Mars and Orion's Belt in a series of angle adjustments because neither the viewfinder nor the screen showed me anything useful about where I was shooting with this pitch black darkness. At one point, I asked Genevieve to hold up her phone as a reference point for the viewfinder, so that I could trace a line vertically upward towards a point in the sky. We had to stand between the side of the lens and the nearby street lamp to cast a shadow and block the stray light from reaching the lens.

Mars from Chabot observatories

The meteor streaks were infrequent compared to the Perseids months earlier. We spotted about a few per hour, and some of them seemed so far away from the Leo constellation that it felt as though we had to track a larger portion of the sky. We gazed directly up towards the sky, which happened to be Auriga, with Orion in our upper left peripheral vision, and Mars and the Big Dipper to the far right. Leo itself seemed obstructed from view, somewhere near the horizon.

Leonids with Leo and Auriga

I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't the spectacular shower I was expecting, since I had set the bar above my Perseids experience in anticipation. But the stargazer inside me was a happy camper, and any event like this is a joy.

Nov. 14th, 2009

Jupiter and Orion's Belt

I've seen planets as very bright stars, but never in a way that I could see any detail. Tonight, I visited the Chabot Space and Science Center's observatories, right in my backyard - a little less than a two mile drive from home.

There were three of them - Rachel the 20 inch refractor telescope, Leah the 8 inch Alvan Clark refractor, and Nellie the 36 inch reflector telescope.

In the first one, they were pointing the telescope at a "blue snowball", as they called it. Genevieve and I queued up in a line that circled around the telescope base and a computer with a transparent red screen to give it the same red hue in every light source in the observatory. A large, clear image of that blue snowball displayed on the computer screen, and just as the staff warned us, the snowball in the telescope was fainter. It looked like a washed out blue through the telescope.

The setup was identical in the second observatory, from the red lights to the computer setup by the telescope. This time, it was a picture of Jupiter and some of its moons. Through the telescope, I could see the faint diagonal brown bands of Jupiter on its off-white cream color body, with bright star-like points of light reflecting from the moons.

There was a slight blur in the picture, much like the shimmering visible distortion from heat radiating off hot pavement. I was told that it was because of the atmosphere by one of the staffers as I talked to him about the telescope (Victorian era and recently moved up) and shape-shifting mirrors (with a vacuum, and not visible by the human eye).

As we were leaving the second observatory and walking back onto the deck between the two observatories, we heard about a third observatory and walked towards a small crowd of people in front of a walkway bridge. I saw a couple of astronomers on the deck looking through a chubby barrel-like telescope extending a little more than an arm's length. For a moment, I wondered if that was the "Nellie" telescope I had been hearing about, but the staffers who were operating it quickly told me that it wasn't. They invited us to look through the telescope, gestured to Genevieve to look through it first. The other staffer told me we were looking at the Orion nebula, close to the Orion's Belt part of the sky we had been gazing at earlier. He pointed out a string of three very closely lined stars by the naked eye, just to the lower right of Orion's belt. I could barely see the first of the three - the one closest to the belt. He lent me his binoculars for a moment, and the sky looked impressively clearer than with a naked eye, almost as though I were looking through a telescope. (I've probably been using subpar binoculars all this time.) I asked him what type of binoculars these were, and he told me they were 8x50 binoculars. The middle of those three stars turned out to be four closely packed stars through the binoculars. They took a square formation, and around them was a slightly cloudy area, which was the nebula. I then looked through the telescope, and saw an even clearer version of what I had seen through the binoculars.

We walked to the line by "Nellie", and a staffer holding a notebook computer in his arms showed us in line a photo of the nebula. We then referenced points in the sky by pointing a green laser pointer, and everyone in line gasped "ooo" when shown the green laser seemingly traveling out to the infinity of space like a rigid tangible string vanishing into the distance. He later told us that the moisture and dust in the air made it easier to see tonight, and that on nights with clear skies, you could barely see the laser at all.

I saw the nebula again through the telescope, and this time it seemed almost as though the cloudy part was an overlay over the four stars, almost as though I were wearing 3D glasses. The staffer told us that these four stars were near the edge of the nebula, and had essentially ripped an opening such that we could see these stars from Earth. In time, future generations would be able to see the other many stars currently hidden by the cloudiness, and the cloudy part itself would ultimately no longer exist.

Starmap: Orion's Belt and Orion's Nebula
Note the string of three stars below to the right of Orion's Belt.

If you ever come across an opportunity for a large telescope viewing, don't pass it up. I did that once with a Mars event back in my freshman year of college, when it was particularly closer to Earth, and I regretted it for a long time afterward. This past evening is something I will remember for a very long time.

Nov. 1st, 2009

The Mini Cooper Experience

The BMW MINI Cooper.

During my senior year of high school, one of our teachers regularly parked a red Cooper in the front parking lot of our school, which was along a frequent walking path I took. I checked it out everyday. This was the beginning of 2003. When it was featured in the third installment of "Austin Powers", I wasn't at all impressed, and viewed it in the same indifferent way that I saw the original British Mini.

But then I saw this 111 minute commercial for the Coopers later that year. It was called "The Italian Job". It was a remake of the 60's original. It was effective, and it garnered plenty of extra attention to the car from the masses, including me.

Yet I never came across an opportunity to ride in or drive one until this year. I rode in one that Thomson had rented from City CarShare, both as a passenger in the front seat (comfortable) and in the back seat (not at all comfortable, especially with relatively big people sitting in the back too.

This weekend, with the untimely Bay Bridge closing during Halloween weekend, I decided to use this opportunity to drive a Zipcar Mini Cooper to San Francisco from Berkeley via the San Mateo Bridge.

First off, I love the exterior. I've known this much since first seeing the BMW Cooper, and that hasn't changed. The shape, curve, and lines are all just right, and both the headlights and rear lights look great. Most car designs only implement a portion of these elements correctly.

Now let's head on into the interior.

The dashboard layout is horrible. The controls to roll down the windows are in the center, as opposed to on the doors below the windows. Now, I want to reason that maybe we're simply used to having these controls on the doors because that's the unofficial standard to which we've grown accustomed. Yet, when we want to open a window in the absence of power windows, our instinct is to directly interact with the windows themselves. This applies to house windows, as well as car windows, which we used to roll up and down with a rotating crank.

The same applies to the door lock controls, which sit in the same row at the center with the window controls. So while the latches to open the door from the inside are on the doors themselves, the locks are on opposite ends.

The radio controls are all over the place. The tuner is positioned near the top center, right below the speedometer with the rest of the audio-related functions, while the volume dial is on its own, inches below and downward from the CD slot.

In general, the knobs generally look too much alike, and the tiny labels don't help either. It takes your eyes off the road, but if they were going for the cockpit feel I assume they were going for, they achieved at least that much.

Aside from the hugely disappointing dash, the front is roomy, and the car is fairly fun to drive. There's a sports mode that gives you a slightly more responsive feeling to every step of the gas pedal. The brakes were very quick to stop the car, which is a mixed blessing since they could cause Mini newcomers to brake too abruptly at first.

Somehow, you don't get the sense of how fast you're driving because it feels like you're going 40 to 50 mph, until you glance at the enormous speedometer in the center of the dash and realize you're actually passing 90 mph. Again, it's a mixed blessing. It might help if there was a more prominent speedometer directly behind the view of the wheel, instead of in the center dash right outside the peripheral vision. There was an LCD display of the speed behind the wheel, right below the RPM gauge. But it's tiny, as though it were of equal importance to the total odometer reading at any moment during driving. I'd say the Civic has a better workaround for the RPM-centric dashboard. They also use a digital speedometer behind the wheel, but it's much larger and noticeable at a glance. In other words, it's actually useful.

The key fob and the "start/stop engine" power button is something I've seen in the Prius, but I love it, and I welcome that feature in the Mini.

Headlights, windshield wipers, the works - they're all in the places you'd expect them. The wipers were a little different for me personally, since you have to toggle them forward and backward to adjust the wiping speeds, and I'd say that's somewhat intuitive in its own way too. The signal light toggle didn't switch off easily, and would instead overshoot and signal right when canceling a left, but I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that was just a faulty Zipcar Mini.

Overall, it's a relatively fun car to drive, it's spacious (and acceptable in the back and comparable to what two-door coupes and hatchbacks offer), the power steering is... interesting, and its parallel parking is easier. If only they could do something about those interior controls.

Oct. 21st, 2009

Idealism and Cynicism

It seems that with every passing year as I grow older, I encounter greater and greater cynicism around me. Cynicism about society, about the government, about people.

I've been an idealist for as long as I can recall. My friends and coworkers throughout the years have reinforced this by independently telling me so. When I was younger, I considered this to have a positive connotation unanimously among people. In more recent years, I've had this sneaking suspicion that this was not the case.

I like to believe in people, to believe in the potential good character and decency of people. This is not to be mistaken with naive blind trust in people. This is idealism with the awareness of the dark side of the individual, and with the pragmatism of the complexity of reality.

Yet I know for a fact that some of my peers interpret idealism as this dangerous naivete. They speak disapprovingly of it as they highlight their skepticism and mistrust as though nearly all public servants will not govern or legislate with good intentions, and as if just about everyone outside friend and family circles can only be assumed to act selfishly and exploitively.

They perceive idealism as the opposite of reality.

Here's the major flaw. There are us optimists out there, who interact with a world we damn well know is not some utopia exhibiting our set of ideals. Yet we choose our behavior based on this foundation of ideals because although society may never be this utopia of ideals, we strive for this high goal in our never ending quest for improvement.

I would even go as far as to say that we idealists push the world forward. Cynics see things as they are. We see things as they can be. Cynics find plenty of excuses why things cannot be, but maybe, just maybe, that crazy idealism gives us the hope and willpower to do great and wonderful things. After all, the best of our humanity and ingenuity often arises from such conditions.

Sep. 14th, 2009

Upon dead ears

About a week ago, I walked out of a David Cook concert with the typical ringing in my ears that occurs after any prolonged exposure to amplifiers and other eardrum-friendly equipment. It mostly faded by the time I reached home, but as I lay in bed, I couldn't shake a lingering bit of white noise in my ears. I'm unaware of any unanimous descriptive word for it, but it's the sound you would hear if you left an old tube television on with no programming or snow static sound. It's that subtle static of its own, like some electrostatic field wanting to gently pull at your hairs.

This sound kept me up half of the night.

I frustratedly took out my phone partway through that night and browsed Google and WebMD for what these symptoms could suggest, and what I gathered was that this symptom is also the result of partial hearing loss, for which there is no cure.

I still hear it today. Could this have been around for a while, and I simply didn't notice until now?

Now, it's possible this ringing is temporary, and not indicative of any hearing loss. Yet I imagined having to live with this for the remainder of my life, never to be at utter acoustic peace again.

There was one time during my middle school years when my family and I were driving along our usual desert road to the beach, and we stopped on the side of the road by some dunes. I stepped out of the car, shut the door behind me, and stood there. There was an occasional light breeze, but in between those breezes, I heard dead silence for the first time in my life. No white noise - no fans humming, no asphalt crunching, no fluorescent lights buzzing. Maybe this is how the peak of a mountain in the Himalayas sounds. I made a note that however I do it, I wanted to relive an absolutely quiet location sometime again in my lifetime, and I'm concerned that time may never come again.

Aug. 13th, 2009

The Perseid Meteor Showers

In the past couple Augusts, I've attempted to catch any of the Perseid meteor showers from our house, but I didn't see any.

So when I read that the peak of this year's Perseid showers would occur past midnight crossing from August 11th to the 12th (yesterday night), I was ready to spend a far more serious amount of time gazing.

Except that the fog rolled in well before midnight and lowered our visibility to one block. It remained there throughout most of the night, so I crawled to bed feeling defeated.

Around dusk on August 12th, I stood on our deck and watched the sky southward and westward, but after about ten minutes out there, I had still seen no meteor showers. It seemed odd that I wasn't seeing anything considering we had relatively ideal conditions for an urban setting, being on the fringes of the city and bordering a sizable Redwood Region Park with little light pollution.

So I headed one block over to a parking lot at an entrance of that park, and used my phone's star map to find the Perseus constellation, at the time located below the horizon to the north, so that I would know where to look. I found the Big Dipper to the northwest and fixed my gaze on a quadrant of the sky slightly east of that. I spotted ten meteor showers in half an hour, starting with the first at about 10:23pm until 10:53pm. Four of those were particularly bright, like bright embers leaving defined light streaks. Each meteor shower lasted about one to two seconds, and most were centered around the Cassiopeia constellation, with the rest of them confined between Andromeda and The Little Dipper. Perseus was only partially above the horizon, now to the northeast rising behind the hills, and an otherwise distracting moon (to the east) had not yet risen.

I had no reception here, so I headed back home and grabbed Karen to come view the showers with me. We spotted five of them, all noticeably bright, in the span of about ten minutes from about 11:02pm to 11:11pm.



I grabbed a DSLR from home the third time to see if I could get some long exposure shots. It was about 11:27pm when I noticed that the moon was rising to the east. I decided to use that as a test subject for the camera, but I then realized I had forgotten an SD card for the camera. So much for that. I savored the experience a bit more, and then headed back home by midnight.

Best gazing thus far.

Aug. 12th, 2009

Explanations

People seem to like to ask a simple question expecting a simple response in return.

"What's your major?", (no complex stories please, I just want to say, Jane, poly sci. major, categorize."
"Where are you from?", (often geographically if you're white, and ethnically if you're not).
"What did you study in college?"

Eventually, we're going to get tired of telling the same story over and over, especially if it's not a one-liner answer.

Explanations
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