Saturday, April 30, 2011

Night-night time

Forget Goodnight Moon, here's a bedtime book written by a tired, frustrated parent:
The cats nestle close to their kittens.
The lambs have laid down with the sheep.
You're cozy and warm in your bed, my dear
Please go the f@#k to sleep.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday afternoon music break

Another Japanese band, Mouse on the Keys. They're on the same label as Toe.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Better parenting through science

Owen's latest obsession is basketball. Scratch that, Owen's obsession has been basketball, for a while now. He practices his shot twice a day, once at school and again after school on the hoop we bought him for his birthday last year.

His practice routine is to shoot until he scores some predetermined number of points, usually 50 to 100. Like most young basketball players, he has been spending a lot of time shooting long-distance three-pointers. However, after missing several in a row he gets very frustrated, which starts a negative feedback loop that causes him to miss more shots (lack of concentration), which causes him to get more upset, etc.

Sometimes he's able to remind himself of what Kobe says: "I'll make the next one." But unfortunately, the more his shot improves, the more he's unsatisfied with anything less than perfection. I had been at a loss lately because, while I'd like to tell him that the likelihood of making a shot is just that, a mere probability, not a certainty. But this point is subtle enough to be missed by 90% of basketball players, based on my experience in pick-up games (and made-up percentages). I always shake my head when I play with people who yell at their teammates after they miss two shots in a row. "Com'mon, man!" Come on? As in, come on small-number binomial statistics?!

Anyway, this weekend when Owen was crying after missing too many shots in a row, I said "Owen, do you think we could---hmmmm, I don't know. Maybe you can't handle it..."

"Wait, what? Can't handle what?" he asked.

"Oh, nothing. I just had a cool idea about an experiment we could do. But I'm not sure you can do it if you're crying."

"What's an experiment?"

"It's something you can do to figure out how the world works."

"Oh...I want one."

"Okay, get a pen, paper and the measuring tape."

We began by marking off regular, 1-foot intervals on the "court."

Starting at 3 feet from the back of the rim...

Out to 16 feet, by the air conditioner.

I then had Owen take 10 shots at each position, keeping track of the number of made shots out of 10. Owen really liked the process of recording the distance and number of shots made after each round. However, note the "instrument failure" at 5 feet, when he nearly lost it after missing the first 3 shots. I reset the instrument ("Take a deep breath. Remember what Kobe says.") and he made 7 of 10.

Half way through, he was beginning to predict how many he'd make at the next step back. "I bet I'm going to make 3 shots at 13 feet." Then, at 16 feet, "Dad, it will be okay if I only make 0 shots or 1 shot from here!"

After we were done, I told him: "These numbers right here, these are (whispering) data." He asked, "Whoa...what are data?" I replied, "They're pieces of information that tell us about how the world works. We can plot them, model them and start understanding."
Owen typed the numbers into a text file, and I read them into IDL to make the plot above. I asked him a bunch of questions and we had a great discussion of topics including:
  • What kind of shots are the easiest? "3 feet or 4 feet."
  • Is it okay to miss longer shots? "Yeah, they're harder."
  • "Dad, this mark means 3, and this mark means 5, and this is 7!"
  • How many shots do you think you'll make at 10 feet? "Um...five!" We then checked the log sheet and high-fived.
Next weekend we'll go over how to fit a linear function of distance and compare it to an alternative model (logistic function) using Bayesian parameter estimation and evidence ratios.

Or maybe we'll just shoot around.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


while mar loves glee, owen loves justin bieber. i learned this the other day at breakfast when he was singing a song that i hadn't heard before. when i asked him about it he told me it was called "baby" and he'd heard it at a friend's house.

since then, we've downloaded a few bieber songs, listened to "baby" on repeat in itunes, and had multiple conversations about the biebs, including the all important conversation about daddy's "allergy" to pop music.

o (upon seeing a youtube video of bieber): is that what justin beaver looks like?
me: yup
o: he's a kid, not a beaver?!?!
me:(lmao) yup
o: oh, i thought he was a beaver who could sing. you know, like a cartoon fantasy!

the next day, again about "baby"
o: do you think that justin bieber made up this song by himself?
me: i don't know, maybe. likely, he is singing words that someone else wrote
o: or maybe he had a dream about the song and just woke up singing it
me: maybe
o: how does he sing soooooo good?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Waiting on waiters

Over at Slate there's an excellent new tech piece on the possibility of replacing waiters in restaurants with small tablet computers, on which customers can place their orders and pay at the end of the meal:
It works like this. The company manufactures tablet computers with full-day battery lives and a credit-card reader attached. The interface is easy enough for a grade-schooler to use. You select what you want to eat and add items to a cart. Depending on the restaurant's preferences, the console could show you nutritional information, ingredients lists, and photographs. You can make special requests, like "dressing on the side" or "quintuple bacon." When you're done, the order zings over to the kitchen, and the Presto tells you how long it will take for your items to come out. Want a margarita in the meantime? Just add it on the console, and wait for the waiter to bring it. Bored with your companions? Play games on the machine. When you're through with your meal, you pay on the console, splitting the bill item by item if you wish and paying however you want. And you can have your receipt emailed to you.
For most dining experiences, I'd be in favor of such a device. And keep in mind that I worked 3 years in the food service industry when I was in high school, starting as a bus boy and working my away up through Sunday brunch server and occasional host ("this way to your table, sir."). I usually sympathize with the wait staff. But a lot of the time these days I'd rather not have to interface with a human.

Sure, ideally you'd get prompt service from a server who would be there to meet your every need. But in most establishments, particularly those with entrees less than $20, you end up playing a game of "I need you/I don't see you." I hate this game. It usually plays out with me sitting at the table, all hungry and wondering why no one has stopped by our table since the hostess sat us. I then try to make eye-contact with passing servers who then play "I don't see you," deftly averting their gaze just when I think they'll pass through my line of sight. Damn, they're good!

Most of the time I much prefer the restaurant in which you walk up to a counter, place your order and pick up your food when it's ready. This way I can know for sure that my order has been received, I can get my own water when my glass is empty, and at the end I don't have to worry about how much to tip. Granted, these types of establishments don't often provide top-of-the line dining experiences. But most of the time our family eats at these places because Erin doesn't want to cook, and/or we're out of the house and hungry right now. During these times, especially with the kids, I don't want to spend half of the time looking around the room for our server only to have to pay an additional 15% tax on the bill.

On the nights when I take Erin out for a fine dining experience, I'll go to a place with professionally-trained servers who will notice that my glass is half empty and refill it, and who know how to recommend a wine to go with my particular entree (hello Ruth's Chris!). After that type of service, I don't mind shelling out an extra 20% for a job well done.

For all other dining experiences: bring on the tablet waiters!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Having fun with language

Via Ta-Nahisi Coates, check out this awesome video about the strict adherence to the rules of language vs. just having fun with words. This really resonated with me since I put a lot of time into my writing but often get hung up on the specific rules. The key question is: "Did you understand what I was saying?" Of course, this is a bit different for speaking vs. writing. The written word lasts a long time and often doesn't have the person there to help out with meaning, when needed. There's no chance for a "huh?" followed by a quick clarification when someone reads your paper 10 years after its publication.

The problem for me is that my attention to detail in my technical writing too often spills over into my daily conversations, which has a tendency to make me trip on my words when I get self-conscious about the pronunciation of a word or the phrasing of a sentence. I also correct people too frequently. Just ask Erin about how I can be a stickler for misplaced modifiers. So this video was good for me to watch. I don't want to be one of those people who blanches at creative wordsmithing simply because it's new and I don't like it (did you like how I verbed the hell out of the noun "wordsmith"?).

Taking Chances

Marcus has a favorite song. Maybe it's more of an obsession at this point. I've been listening to a soundtrack from Glee (yes, I watch the show & yes, I love Will Schuster). When Marcus gets a "pick" of a song, he consistently says "I want numbah 6, my favorite tong, Taking Chances". I've learned the words and it's become his most requested bedtime song. In due time, I'll snap a video of him singing---- he knows all the words. Without fail, he'll always ask for "one more time"....

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pardon the mess

We're adjusting the appearance of the blog at the moment, trying different color schemes and such. We'll settle on a new theme soon.

craigslist, oh craigslist....

Yesterday I had my most satisfying craigslist experience to date. I found a great dining set, had it delivered and we were rid of our old set in all before sunset. Perhaps it was all those Saturday morning garage sales I went to with mom and Aunt Anna Marie when I was young, or maybe it was watching Grandpa sort through the treasures in his garage on Santiago street..... whatever the reason, I love the process of taking something old and giving it new life.

Anyhow, I've been watching the furniture section of craigslist for about 6 months, waiting for a dining table that was big enough to accomadate a large gathering but not too big for everyday use. Sure enough, I spotted one midweek, thought about it for 2 days (taking a major risk) then called and arranged to take a look Saturday morning. I arrived at 9am, just before the two others who had arranged to see it, proposed a lower price & arranged for it to be picked up & delivered by lunchtime. Just as the Johnson family was arriving for our Easter lunch & egg hunt, my trusty delivery man with a pickup truck pulled in with the table and chairs!

Around 6pm I decided to post our old table & chairs on craigslist for free. Our old table & chairs was a $25 craigslist find when we first arrived in Hawaii in 2007. I'd recovered the seats twice and it certainly served us well for 4 years. However, I'd recently realized our daily breakfast routine has included the "squeaky chair game" for a bit too long and knew it was time for a change! Within five minutes of posting our old table, I'd received four emails and arranged for a pickup. By 8pm old table was gone and on it's way to a new home, where it will get a little TLC and start it's new life.

Fun, eh? The old table is at the top of this post. Here's a photo of the table & chairs from the craigslist post.... I'll put one up of it's new home ASAP :)

image 2335886705-0

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Well in advance of Father's Day

Some advice to fathers, from Louis CK

Friday, April 22, 2011

On Apple Remotes and Remotely Controlling Apples

Last week Erin and I gave in and purchased Apple TV. What is Apple TV? you ask. Well, it's a little black box, about the size of a coffee shop brownie, that sits next to your TV and allows you to access YouTube and Netflix on a screen bigger than your laptop's. This doesn't sound very magical, but our family watches a lot of YouTube (as you can tell by my frequent video links), and Netflix Instant has finally matured to the point were I can browse and find videos old and new that are worth watching. Hello, David Attenborough documentaries!

There are a couple of downsides. The biggest is that Hulu isn't available through Apple TV. Boo! Erin suspects this is because Apple would prefer to charge you $2.99 per episode of popular TV shows rather than letting you get by on your $8/month Hulu Plus subscription. I guess you gotta love the player but hate the game.

The other downside was more minor, and fortunately easy to fix: the infrared remote that comes with Apple TV likes to simultaneously talk to any laptop within earshot (eyeshot?). Fortunately the interwebs provide an easy fix, which simply involves unlinking the remote from your computer. Duh, I guess.

The note of remotely controlling someone else's computer reminded me of this xkcd cartoon:

This gives one pretty good ideas about how to prank one's office mate or spouse. Others include turning on voiceover narration in Universal Access, which allows a Steven Hawking-like voice to narrate the user's every move: "Safari, Dock, Finder, search for 'turn off voice.'"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Murmurs of Middle Earth

Pogo is at it again!

Owen and Mar are way into this video. It's funny, but from the moment they first laid eyes on a tiny bit of Tolkien they were totally hooked. Owen is obsessed with the story of Gandolf, and loves to hear the story of the "fire monster," especially the part where Gandolf yells, "You shall not pass!" Of course, he and Mar are way too young to watch the movies, and their attention span is no where near receptive to Tolkien's meandering prose. So for now, the story of Frodo, Gimli, Gandolf and the fire monster are a part of our family's oral tradition, and Pogo's music stands in for the elvish poetry.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Devilishly counterintuitive

First of all, I'm excited that Recreational Pedantry has a fresh post. Prof. Wright, it's been too long! I hope you're back.

Secondly, the post is awesome. The idea is to donate $1 to a cause you oppose in order to cost them money in postage and effort down the line:
So, for just $1 you can cost right-wing causes (like Bachmann's campaign?) hundreds of dollars over the years. That's actually a great investment! What are you waiting for? Keep tabs on the "enemy", cost them time and effort, and support your local recycling efforts on your end -- send in your check today!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Air travel tips

After my not-so-fun previous post on flying, allow me to lighten the mood somewhat and offer some advice on how to make air travel bearable if not fun (that smoothie helped a lot!):

1) Buy a pair of Bose headphones, but get the kind that fit around your ears. Together with an mp3 player you'll block out most of what makes flying annoying: other people.

Be careful, though. If a flight attendant sees the little red light on during takeoff and landing, they'll ask you to turn them off, likely in an annoying, passive-aggressive way, such as "We DO ask that all passengers turn off their electronic devices." Oh yeah, well I DO know that my FAA-approved device poses no serious danger to your plane. If it did, you would have confiscated it before I planed. And yes, I said "planed," as in the opposite of "deplaned."

To avoid this conversation, just put a small square of black electrical tape over the light. No red light, no hassle.

2) Try this: when the plane pulls up to the gate and the fasten seatbelt sign goes off, just sit there. Just sit and stare straight ahead (this works best with headphones and an ipod). Breathe slowly, think about something relaxing or otherwise stressless. It does absolute wonders for your state of mind and your blood pressure. Besides, what are all those people standing and rooting through the overhead bins accomplishing? You can't move until the people in front of you move, so what's so great about having to hold onto your carry-ons while you wait?

3) Small airports like Charlotte and Burbank have comfortable, relatively quiet waiting areas. Big, busy airports like LAX have cramped, crowded, dirty and LOUD waiting areas. If you're like me, you can only handle admonitions to "maintain control of your luggage" about a dozen times before it starts seriously messing with your head. Here's a solution: go find the customer service room. These are usually between gates and contained in glassed-in areas full of open seats. You'll find a comfortable place to sit, check your email, write a blog post, all free of security warnings reminding you that we're at threat level 3.7 or whatever the hell it is these days.

4) Starbucks isn't the only place that sells coffee! Shocking, I know, but it's true. So while all the suckers from your flight wait in a 20-deep line to get their lattes, stroll down on down to the sandwich shop that is likely "Proud to Feature Gavina Gourmet" (as if they'd feature the coffee in a more sheepish manner). Grab a sammich while you're at it, you'll have plenty of time left over from not waiting in line!

5) When searching for a wireless network, ignore the one called "Free Public WiFi."
No, the FAA didn't start offering a useful service to airport denizens. It's actually what is known as a "zombie network." Sound cool? Well, it is pretty cool, but not as cool as actual zombies using wireless. From NPR:
When a computer running an older version of XP can't find any of its "favorite" wireless networks, it will automatically create an ad hoc network with the same name as the last one it connected to -- in this case, "Free Public WiFi." Other computers within range of that new ad hoc network can see it, luring other users to connect. [...] Computers with the XP bug that try to connect to the Internet will remember the name, create their own ad hoc networks and entice other users wherever they go.
You can read more here.

6) Remember that you're sitting in a chair, in the sky!


Do you have any travel tips? Please share!

On irrational security measures

I'm currently flying across the country (actually, laid over in Charlotte) having just slogged through LAX security this morning. As always, I had to remove my shoes, take out my laptop and throw away what remained of my coffee. I had to throw away my coffee not because the amount of liquid exceeded the arbitrary 3 oz. limit, but because the original cup once contained, or could potentially contain more than 3 oz. Into the box full of shampoos, deodorant and bottled water it went. I'm sure everyone felt a lot safer as a result.

It was similar to the time I had my beautifully gift-wrapped bottle of authentic Chinese Maotai ripped apart and taken from me by the Newark TSA staff because...well, because...I don't even know anymore. It doesn't matter that I could have gotten that liquor through the checkpoint if were frozen and packed into a box. Or poured into a dozen individual 3 oz bottles. It doesn't matter if those dozen 3 oz bottles contained napalm instead of liquor. I was forced to be a bit player in our ongoing airport security theater act. The underpaid TSA staff member did their dance, I stood there in my socks and watched, and after it was done I was able to board my flight.

So it was pretty good timing when I stumbled upon Patrick Smith's latest article on Salon, because it was that much less that I have to write and vent at the moment. In the article, Smith recounts having his safety scissors confiscated, and once again pleads with his audience to understand a simple fact
When it came right down to it, the success of the Sept. 11 attacks had nothing -- nothing -- to do with box cutters. The hijackers could have used anything. They were not exploiting a weakness in luggage screening, but rather a weakness in our mind-set -- our understanding and expectations of what a hijacking was and how it would unfold. The hijackers weren't relying on weapons, they were relying on the element of surprise.
Sadly, I think he's right when he concludes
There in [the airport] it hit me, in a moment of gloomy clarity: These rules are never going to change, are they?
Nope, they're not likely to change because when it comes down to it, these rules are what we want. When I say "we" I mean the American populous, myself included. We've evolved from individualists to a scared collective mess. We're more concerned with the winner of American Idol than we are about the basic rights daily stripped from us in the name of security. We'll suffer a little humiliation at a check point in order to feel better, which is something we desperately need after the perpetually-on CNN-tuned TV monitor in the waiting area yells at us about the latest stroller recall or the latest cancer study. Oh, and you need to buy acne medicine and better clothes. This just in!

The rules aren't likely to change because we won't demand it, and we won't demand it because we've been conditioned not to care anymore.

Dang, I didn't mean to end on such a downer. I fully intended to end with a joke about deplaning (when do we ever plane a plane?). But writing has made everything a bit clearer, if nothing else. I'm gonna go get a Jamba Juice.

Storm vs. rational thought

Via The Dish, check out this amazing poem (and video) about the rational vs. the mystical. A quote:
This does it so fail to hold our attention
that we have to diminish it with the invention
of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?
Careful, though, past the 5 minute mark the language no longer entirely safe for work. The quote above comes after the 7:40 mark.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Creating time where none previously existed

Pop quiz clock on

A commenter to my AstroBites post left a link for another bite-sized blog offering a zen perspective. It's of course called ZenBites, and after reading one of the posts I'm hooked. On our inabilities to make time for creative, new projects:
Time has a habit of trampling over us, so softly we don’t even notice but so powerfully we become crushed over the course of weeks and years.
So you gotta seize moments whether they are available or not. Can you carve I 30 minutes to put together a new blog post? No? Do it anyway. That's how the author of ZenBites has kept their blog going, and that's how stands today
Time doesn’t fall into your lap. It isn’t handed to you by a kindly old gentleman. You must create it, taking from the world the raw materials you need and shaping it with your bare dirty blistered hands, pushing the clay into form from its shapeless muddy glob.
It's funny, I used to make fun of this sort of direct, seemingly pat advice. But I'm finding clear analogies, step-wise approaches, and simple advice extremely useful lately. For me, it's a long road to tenure. If I'm going to simultaneously be ultra-productive and enjoy the journey, I'm gonna need a lot of this type of zen-like advice.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Guestblogging on AstroBites

Some of the graduate students at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics recently started a blog called AstroBites. Authors on the blog, usually grad students, provide easily digestible reviews of recent astronomy papers appearing on the pre-print archive (aka astro-ph). The blog provides a nice intermediate between higher-level reviews of papers (and the papers themselves), and intro astronomy text books, providing a thoroughly modern view of a wide range of astronomy topics.

In addition to the review articles, there are regular features on career development and general insights into modern astronomy research, from a grad student perspective. For example, this post on what it's like to observe for the first time on a major telescope, or this post on data mining.

After a recent visit to the CfA one of the blog's founders, Nathan, contacted me and invited me to write a guest post on a topic of my choosing. The post Zen and the Art of Astronomy Research appeared today. Go check it out, and browse the AstroBites archive while you're there.

Next up: my long-promised guest post on AstroBetter (sorry for the delay, Kelle!)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It's Shaun the Sheep!

The boys' favorite show at the moment is Shaun the Sheep (pictured above). It's also one of our favorite shows, as parents. If you have kids, or if you spend a lot of time around kids, you know how difficult it is to find a good kids show. Either the songs grate on your nerves (Barney, Teletubbies), teach questionable morals (Thomas the Tank Engine), or teach nothing at all (Spongebob). But Shaun the Sheep is hip, funny, worldly, clever and just plain fun. He solves problems, deals with inter-species issues, a dances the occasional jig.

If you have Netflix, watch it on instant or add it to your queue, whether you have kids or not!

Note: Claymation aficionados might know Shaun from Wallace & Gromit's A Close Shave. I loved that they named the sheep Shaun, both because it's such a human name and because with Wallace's British accent is sounds like "Shorn," you know as in a shorn sheep. So great!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Owen's latest artwork

Like most kids his age, Owen produces a prodigious amount of artwork on a weekly basis. Here's a true stand-out, and my latest favorite.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pics of Owen and Mar

Mar + Monkey = Happy

Making orange juice

Owen and Nonna during a recent visit

Owen was sick. Mar: "We're both snuggling!"

Look, Daddy, it's Utah!

Evan, Owen and Natalie making their own pizzas

Owen and Mar Dancing

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saturday Evening Music Break

The whole Johnson family is digging on the Avett Brothers over dinner tonight:

The Learning Channel...for some reason

Friday, April 1, 2011

Google Motion

Yeah, I know...

Spring's right around the corner

Or is it here already? I couldn't tell while in NYC this week where it was seriously cold.

Anyway, with spring comes baseball. I don't really watch much baseball, but I figure it's the cheapest sport to attend live and it's among the safest for a kid to play. I hope Owen sticks with his desire to play basketball over football, but I figure I should have a backup plan in place.

Because I haven't watched baseball seriously in a decade--I was a Cards fan back in the day--I found this flow chart both hilarious and helpful (thanks Phil M.):