Thursday, December 23, 2010

The future is now! Meh.

As miraculous as this thing is, after I downloaded the free (FREE!) app to my phone, I saw that it actually costs $4.99 for the Spanish-to-English module. I was all, "$4.99 for a damn iPhone app?! No way!" Yes, 2 minutes prior it was a miracle. Then, suddenly I was outraged at the price.

Toward a More Visual Isle

My friend Jon stopped through Pasadena yesterday and I introduced him to the Isle of Tune. (You might remember Jon from around this time last year.) After browsing through some example islands among the top-ranked list Jon noticed a tendency for authors to place function over form, thereby neglecting the visual aspect of the island. I had this same tendency in my first Isles: three distinct musical elements for three separate cars, all arranged in a line or circle.

So Jon and I set out to design a town visually first, and see what musical elements fell out of the construction. We then took some of those elements, replicated them and formed our Tune: Novambient Drive.

If you enjoy it, be sure to vote

Many thanks to the Isle of Tune's creator Jim, for fixing our island after a weird bug caused our elements to become scrambled when we first tried to save/share it.

The reason for the season: Inception/Coke Mashups

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


As a professional astronomer, I strongly approve of las maestras choice of song for the San Rafael Elementary Christmas program. Bravo DLP kindergarteners!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Isle of Tune

Behold the latest internet sensation: The Isle of Tune.

Here's my third, and so far, dopest Isle. Careful, this is seriously addictive.

The Reason for the Season: Economic Inefficiency?

I just read an excellent article on Slate that confirmed the intuitive sense I've long had about gift-giving. The article describes two of the primary reasons why giving gifts is economically ill-advised. The first is dead-weight loss, which is nicely summed up in the classic tale of the Gift of the Magi. The basic idea is that if a person really wants/needs an item, they will buy it.
Even if Della hadn't cut off her hair, economic theory would demand to know why, if Della really wanted the combs, she wouldn't already have bought them. Or why, if Jim really wanted to replace his worn leather watch strap, he wouldn't already have done so.
Based on this concept the ideal gift-giving situation is one in which the gift giver is able to anticipate a gift that the recipient wasn't aware they wanted. In order to do this, you must know the person well---often better than they know themselves. This is difficult to do for anyone outside of your own household.

You might argue, But they bought those gifts because they love each other! True, and I'll address that point below. But as a quick aside, a separate point not mentioned in the article is that you might buy an item for someone else for the simple reason that they can't afford it. However, giving this person the gift they really want but can't afford is no good if the gift-giving is expected to be reciprocated, as is the case during holidays. By receiving your gift, they have what they want, but they can't afford to give back in kind, which potentially fosters either guilt on one side or resentment on the other, or both.

This leads us to the second problematic aspect of giving gifts, resentment costs. From the Slate article:
Give your mailman a Hershey bar for Christmas and the worst he'll likely do is shrug. Give your wife a Hershey bar for Christmas and she may file for divorce.
By giving gifts, we signal that we have thought long and hard about the other person and know them as well as they know themselves. Succeed, and you have a happy loved one. Fail, and you not only waste money, but you signal that you don't think much about them ("It's...a sweater!").

I'm not so into all this signaling. I'm much more into directly communicating my thoughts. I wasn't always good at doing so, and I still have to work at it, but I try my best to tell people that they matter to me and that I love them and think of them often. To me, this is much more valuable than waiting for a set date (holiday) to signal those thoughts through inefficient, and often wasteful, gift-giving.

This is not to say that I don't give gifts to Erin. I just try to wait for the rare times when I can anticipate something she wants and surprise her with it. Not because Hallmark tells me to do so, but because right at that moment I want to do it for her. If it's at a random time, then there's no pressure for her to give one back. Giving a gift or otherwise expressing love outside of when society compels me is a much more sincere and meaningful gesture, in my humble opinion.

There are also my anti-consumerism sentiments. I've long viewed holidays as excuses to spend a bunch of money you wouldn't otherwise spend. I strive to be responsible with my family's finances. Arguably, I sometimes flirt with outright cheapness. But if Erin and I set a budget at the beginning of the year to spend a certain amount of money on necessities each month---and even some non-essential items---then we take a lot of pride in sticking with this plan. It would be irresponsible for me to, in the middle of July, go out and buy myself a big-screen television or a new Lexus, complete with the obligatory red bow on top, especially if I didn't discuss it with my wife or plan for it in our finances.

So why is it any better for me to make this purchase, or hope that Erin does so, just because its Jesus' birthday (or the winter solstice)? If it's irresponsible on July 14, then it's equally bad on December 25. But it's worse than this. If Erin buys me a red-bow-topped car for Xmas, then I damn well better buy an equally exceptional gift for her. The expectation of a gift in return potentially doubles the cost of Erin's gift. However, if I try to keep costs down, then I increase the chances of resentment (indeed, even for a nearly perfect person like Erin, resentment is a risk :)

Yes, we could budget for a blockbuster Xmas gift each year. But is that really gift-giving, or just good budget planning in anticipation of buying a big-ticket item? Plus, the risk of a bad gift and/or inequality in the gift exchange still loom large.

I'm a big fan gifts that only require your time and effort, rather than money. By removing the monetary aspect you bring fidelity to your signal: people see that you care because you put the actual effort into the gift, rather than just swiping your Visa card. How about the gift of togetherness in a quiet, relaxed, non-commercial environment? This is what I enjoy most about our annual trips to Houston for the Holidays. Lounging, yelling (Pousson-style), and eating.

Instead of making that big, day-long shopping trip, why not take the kids to the park and frickin' relax together for an hour? Here's my favorite quote from a recent opinion piece about saving Thanksgiving from Xmas:
[R]ethink gift-giving. It is a simple and lamentable fact that the percentage of the Christmas gifts you receive that are useless to you is pretty high. Yes, it’s the thought that counts. But  if it’s the thought that counts, then it is perfectly acceptable for people to exchange the kind of gift that cannot be purchased in a store, namely, the gift of time.
Astronomers: Give the gift of 3 straight days without checking your email. It's a much harder gift to obtain, and likely much more appreciated than a new Blu-ray player. (Oh, it hurts! I know!)

When it comes to actually making a purchase, I've always enjoyed giving gifts to kids. Young children are bad at anticipating their real desires. Plus, if they are not overly spoiled throughout the year, a child's holiday gift can be very inexpensive, resulting in a huge return on investment. One year our friend Quinn gave Owen the gift of a cardboard box fort. I am certain that Owen derived more enjoyment from that gift than he got out of the $100 bike we bought for his third birthday. It's not that he didn't (eventually) enjoy that bike. It's just that A) we would have eventually bought him a bike because, let's face it, a kid needs a bike, and B) that box fort was AWESOME.

I'm extremely fortunate to have married a woman who is into practical spousal gifts. For example, she got upset when she found out I was looking for a diamond ring for our engagement. She instead insisted on an engagement mountain bike, which we still have. This year she had the great gift idea of paying off part of eachother's credit cards. Now this is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Each month we'll have lower payments, and in the long run we'll pay much less. A related gift is a pledge to pay, say, $20/month above the minimum payment of your spouse's credit card. You might be shocked how much faster this pays down your balance. For example, if you have $4000 on a card with a 13% APR, paying the minimum ($83/month) will take 239 months to pay down your card and you'll pay $3855 in interest alone. Paying $20 above the minimum reduces this to 51 months and $1213 in interest.

Of course, all of this is probably way to pragmatic for most people, which is entirely understandable. Paying down credit cards isn't exactly romantic. If you still feel the need to buy gifts for others outside of your household due to social pressures, or because you are a damn good gift-giver, you can side-step the wasteful aspects by explicitly removing the expectation of reciprocation. Tell people not to give you a gift back. That is, unless you really expect a gift in return. Then again, if you expect something of equal value in return, why not just exchange a "Merry Christmas" and go buy what you each really want?

But, as the economist Slate author argues, if you still insist in going on that big shopping trip at the mall, you can take comfort in knowing that your economic inefficiency is at least stimulating the economy. And that, after all, is the true Reason for the Season!

Note: The author of this article is not a true economist nor a financial expert, and the advice given herein should be used for entertainment value only.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fall Comes Slowly to Pasadena

Mar and I were playing in the front yard last week and I was inspired to snap some pics and a quick movie. Sorry for the jitter, the form factor of an iPhone does not facilitate smooth panning.

Hey, what's that small creature in the bushes?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

First tooth out!

Last week Owen and I were playing football in the master bedroom. Owen was pretending to run back a kickoff and I reached out to tackle him while Mar blocked me. Owen ducked and my wrist hit him square in his mouth, right on his loose tooth. He stood up, blinked hard twice, and spit out his tooth, literally with a patooey sound. I sprinted and grabbed a wash cloth, but it was too late. He saw the blood and started crying. Fortunately the mouth heals quicker than any part of the body.

Owen eventually calmed down and we put his tooth under his pillow in a "special tooth holder" (an old coin purse of Erin's). The next morning the tooth fairy delivered: a crisp dollar bill (you know, due to inflation).

Hurray for correct terminology

One of my (many) football pet peeves is the so-called "turnover ratio," which is defined as the difference between the number of times a team takes away possession of the ball to the times they turn the ball over. Catch that? It's calculated as the difference: R = Ntake - Ngive. The Jaguars have given away the ball 10 more times than they have taken it away this season, so their "turnover ratio" is -10. Gah!

Fortunately, in today's CBS broadcast of the Jags vs the Colts someone finally got it right. The announcer called it the turnover differential! Yay!

Random pictures from the past year

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Beavers Win! Beavers Win!

It was the longest minute-18 ever. Caltech had led most of the game only to have the UCSC Banana Slugs roar back to snatch the edge back (despite not having appendages). As nicely summarized on the Caltech sports page:
Cramer scored the last points for Caltech with 1:18 left which gave the home squad a 63-59 edge. Samuel Allen hit one of two at the foul line seven seconds later to bring UC Santa Cruz within three points. During that same sequence, Allen rebounded his second miss at the foul line and his lay-up brought the visitors deficit to one point.
"I'm about to have a heart attack," breathed Erin as we sunk into our seats. It looked like victory was slowly slipping away, aided by UCSC's full-court press, a few lucky bounces, and what seemed like hostile officiating. On the inbound:
A Caltech turnover gave the ball back to UC Santa Cruz with under a minute left. Ryan Matsuoka missed a jumper with 33 seconds left but the Banana Slugs grabbed an offensive rebound. Allen missed a jumper but another offensive rebound set up the conclusion.
Oh man, this was too good! Up by 1, ball out of bounds to the Banana Slugs, 2.6 left on the clock. The crowd stood up and craned their necks to see along the sideline. I grabbed my camera. The noise in Braun Gymnasium was deafening (well, really loud for a Caltech athletic event):
Matsuoka took the inbounds pass with 2.6 seconds left...

The crowd went nuts. I went nuts. Everyone surged forward toward the edge of the court, but the Caltech faithful seemed timid, uncertain. Wait, what do we do when we win?

The Johnsons went to In-N-Out.

The Caltech men's basketball team posted their third consecutive win for the first time since 1994. Much credit goes to Coach Eslinger for leading the first ever recruiting effort. As my research assistant and former Caltech basketball captain recently put it

I knew they would be doing really well this year. This is the 2nd year the program has actively recruited players. When I came to Caltech, there was no recruiting. They just had a link on the athletics page that said "interested in playing for Caltech?" and you'd click on it, and it would take you to a form to fill out. The coach that was there at the time would call you up and talk to you and then you were basically on the team.
Caltech's former losing streaks are legendary. One is the subject of a documentary movie, Quantum Hoops. But keep in mind that the Caltech players take the same high-level, core course load as everyone else on campus including 5 terms of physics (classical mechanics, electromagnetism, waves, quantum mechanics, statistical physics), and 5 terms of math (calculus, ordinary differential equations, and infinite series; linear algebra; vectors and analytic). Yes, the men's basketball team graduates with the same undergraduate physics background as their professors. In fact, I'm sure that some of their physics courses are harder than mine were. This makes the success of the recruiting effort and the recent dominance on the court all the more impressive.

Go Beavers!

The reason for the season

Togetherness (fostered by alcohol!)

via Andrew Sullivan, like most things.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

sweet as can be

by e

i dunno how i ended up in a house of such sweet boys. marcus and i are both home sick today; he's watching Cars for the millionth time, i'm working my way through a backlog of designblogs. a minute ago he climbed onto my lap and said:

"mommy, i want to snuggle you. i really love you"
me, wiping away a tear of joy "i really love you too"
mar, "i love you as high as i can hop" (can you guess which book is a favorite?)
me "me too marcus"

he then held monkey up to my face and said "here ya go mommy, give monkey kiss". naturally, i obliged, and he proceeded to snuggle me so fiercly, we accidentally butted heads and i ended up with a fat lip.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Mar called up Auntie Amy today on his Lightening McQueen phone.

Monday, December 13, 2010

me and my frends go to the librare

by owen:

i droo this pictur

(Fernando, Owen, Sofia B., Kai, Rachel, Ken, Mak, Maistra [teacher])

and i rote thees words

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Saturday Morning Mathematics

Saturday morning Owen and I were having some fun with math (Marcus helped by turning an otherwise orderly counting process into more of a Monte Carlo process). We started by counting the change in his piggy bank: 1363 pennies in various denominations. While putting the change back in the bank, Owen paused and said, "Daddy, do you know what 37 plus 16 is? It's 53!" I figured he got pretty lucky since we normally do double-digit addition on paper, not in his head. Assuming it was just a fluke, I asked him what 55 plus 13 was. He paused, and I thought he was stumped. Then, after about 10 seconds he exclaimed, "Oh, I know! It's 68!" Well, I'll be!

So I grabbed the camera as we proceeded down the stairs:

I'm pretty amazed at his ability to compute in his head. I think he has a real talent for visualizing numbers and manipulating them spatially (if that's the right term). My mom often recounts the story of me, when I was 5, telling her how many quarters were in two dollars, then three and four dollars. But Owen also has an amazing memory, which is something I lack. I often joke that I have a good processor and fast RAM, but a faulty hard drive (I'm doubly hamstrung because I don't do a good job of keeping notes). Owen's hard drive is like a vault.

Sorry to boast on my boy, but I'm definitely one proud father. As long as he's interested in playing math games, I'm more than happy to oblige. Of course, he may grow up and want to enroll in theater school. If he does, I'll support him fully. But for now, I'm gonna enjoy all the math and football.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Andrew Lange Memorial Trampoline

In my Caltech offer letter, the late PMA Chair Andrew Lange wrote:

"Finally, the Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy will, with considerable delight, have delivered to your new address in Pasadena a trampoline identical to (or, if such cannot be located, as similar as possible to) the trampoline that your son Owen so much enjoyed in the Chair's backyard during your visit."

At long last, this morning:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Urban Assault Meets Scottish Countryside

Danny MacAskill - "Way Back Home" - street trials riding short film

Monday, December 6, 2010

Have Not A Spirit of Fear

I was sitting in the living room working on my laptop when Owen wandered in and laid his head on my lap. "Daddy, I keep having bad dreams and I can't go to sleep." I walked him back into his room, tucked him in and told him to look at his stuffed animals if he got scared again. After all, how can you feel scared when Piglet is grinning in your face? Owen agreed with that logic and soon fell asleep.

The whole incident brought to mind one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. I used to have a hard time falling asleep because I had an active imagination and I was extremely susceptible to imagery from TV. For instance, there was an episode of McGyver with a Sasquatch in it. Even though the Sasquatch turned out to be a bad guy dressed up, and even though he was eventually caught by the bemulletted hero, I still feared the 7-foot-tall monster would emerge from my closet the moment I closed my eyes.

To help me and my sisters with our bed-time fears, my father used to sing us a song based on a Bible verse: "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, power and a sound mind!" He'd get out his guitar and we'd sing this verse several times, reminding ourselves that we didn't have to be afraid. We'd remember what we were raised to be: loving, yet powerful people with sound minds.

So it all came together when Owen interrupted me, because I was reading an essay by Bruce Schneier (by way of Andrew Sullivan) about the current state of fear in which we in America now live. The tongue-in-cheek conclusion of his essay is that we should close the Washington Monument due to the complications involved in protecting it from terrorists. By doing so, we will finally erect a proper monument to our state of fear:
An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They're afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism -- or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity -- they will be branded as "soft on terror." And they're afraid that Americans would vote them out of office if another attack occurred. Perhaps they're right, but what has happened to leaders who aren't afraid? What has happened to "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"?
It's so true that it literally hurts me to read it. Somehow we have moved from being a country of sound-minded people to a collection of flinching, wincing individuals. This article dovetails with another essay I recently read by Patrick Smith (from Ask a Pilot), who reminds us that terrorism existed before 9/11, and somehow we, as a nation, didn't go scurrying and hiding. We didn't overreact and ban nail clippers and snow globes from carry-on luggage.

He describes a harrowing four-year time span between 1985 and 1989 during which there were eight major terrorist attacks on planes and airports.
In the 1980s we did not overreact. We did not stage ill-fated invasions of distant countries. People did not cease traveling and the airline industry did not fall into chaos. We were lazy in enacting better security, perhaps, but as a country our psychological reaction, much to our credit, was calm, measured and not yet self-defeating.
It's really too bad that we didn't react more calmly nine years ago, but
With respect to airport security, it is remarkable how we have come to place Sept. 11, 2001, as the fulcrum upon which we balance almost all of our decisions. As if deadly terrorism didn't exist prior to that day, when really we've been dealing with the same old threats for decades. What have we learned? What have we done?
What our country has done, I would argue, is traded in a spirit of love and power for one of fear.
And what more could the terrorists have hoped for? Perhaps the cliche "the terrorists have won" is a cliche because it's so often true, given our reaction to it.

Well, I for one have made up my mind to not give into fearfulness. We get one chance at life on this planet, and I'm determined to enjoy it here while I can. And I want to teach that same attitude to my children so they can grow up with sound minds.