Blog: 2008-11

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 [photo of NYC taxi with Harvard Book Store in background] We could all find misfortunes to gripe about, on a world or national level, in addition to personal ones. But while the Tofurky cooks on this American holiday, I reflected a bit on things to be thankful for.

With apologies in advance to non-Americans for my nationalist bias. :)

When I was a little kid, I often thought how fortunate I was. The strongest recollection I have was thinking how probabilistically unlikely it was that I was born in what seemed to be the greatest country, in a period of relative prosperity, with good parents.

(I briefly also thought I was fortunate to have been brought up in the one true religion, although I soon became suspicious of that one.)

My family was never well-to-do, and (starting perhaps when my dad was away in the service) I quietly worried for years that we didn't have enough money to get by. Yet I believe that, during this same period, I had an implicit sense of having had good luck to be where I was.

Later in childhood, I came to learn more about pieces of the American systems, as well as, for example, pieces of the USSR systems by contrast. My sense of good fortune was reinforced.

In young adulthood, I gradually learned that I'd received a distorted view of America. I had believed in all the grand ideals and myths, but there were different aspects of the reality of America that were inconsistent with what we'd been taught and believed.

I still believe in the value of the American grand ideals and myths, and I still think they remain much of the reality of America.

I'd about lost hope in November 2004, when it seemed that America had given up on trying to do the right thing. Our national redemption began when we saw fit to elect Obama and his "message of hope." While different individuals voted for Obama for a variety of reasons, I think the majority of it was that people looked at Obama and saw that he was a leader most consistent with our collective image of what we believe and aspire to in America.

Is America the best country ever? Objectively, there are countries that are economically healthier, are socially more progressive, have better international reputations, etc. But that's like asking yourself whether another family's kids are better than your own kids. In terms of that analogy: my kids aren't perfect, but they're pretty darn good, and I wouldn't trade them for anyone else.

And I'm thankful.

(Photo is from today, in Harvard Square. Perhaps someone really wanted to get to family or friends for Thanksgiving.)

S&S Pumpkin Spice Nut Pancakes

S&S Restaurant (Inman Square, Cambridge, MA, US) is a local institution for brunch. The Pumpkin Spice Nut Pancakes are excellent, and they are served every day.

Get Out of Town News

Harvard Square landmark Out Of Town News will be closing.

My current idea for what to do with the place would be to preserve the external architecture and turn it into a tasteful and innovative small cafe with a strong "walk-thru" component for all that heavy foot traffic. (Absolutely not a Starbucks nor other chain.)

They could even preserve the existing signage and name, and have a smaller selection of increasingly anachronistic newspapers and magazines.

Winter Comfort Food

Cold weather has hit Cambridge again, which reminds me of perhaps my favorite comfort food from childhood, which came from the hot lunch line in grade school.

"Hot lunch" was what we called the cafeteria line, where you'd get dollops of the food-of-the-day into depressions on a steel cafeteria food tray. This was at Catholic school, and I recall hot lunch was considered expensive, so many kids brought cold lunch instead. But you could eat hot lunch for free if you volunteered to wash the trays in lieu of recess.

I think pizza was the most popular day. I was more fond of the fibrous Salisbury steak days.

But the most redeeming day was chicken noodle soup and peanut butter sandwiches. The soup wasn't that memorable, and perhaps more salt than chicken or noodle. But a white bread and peanut butter sandwich dipped into the soup, to absorb the broth and scoop up a few small noodles, was transformed into something delicious.

I'm still trying to find a vegetarian approximation.

News Flash: Professional Journalist Dislikes Citizen Journalism

There are multiple ways to parse this sentence, as well as to deconstruct it:

Their news coverage and hard-digging investigative reporting stand out in an Internet landscape long dominated by partisan commentary, gossip, vitriol and citizen journalism posted by unpaid amateurs.

—Richard Pérez Peña, "Web Sites That Dig for News Rise as Watchdogs," New York Times, 2008-11-17

Judge citizen journalism by what company it keeps?

One Reason to Hate Compact Digicams

Sensor noise.

 [photo of terrible image quality on a dreary scene] When I'd put away my DSLRs, I'd usually make sure they were set to ISO 400. The image quality wasn't as good as ISO 200, but it was certainly good enough for news shots, and the extra stop might make the difference between getting the shot and not getting it.

This morning, I spotted a reddish sparrow-like bird on the tree just across the sidewalk from my front window. I grabbed the Canon G9 and took a few shots. See the 100% crop of the best image (PNG of original lowest-compression JPEG). That looks less like bokeh to me, and more like an overaggressive de-noising algorithm that still isn't powerful enough with the travesty that is ISO 400 on a compact digicam sensor.

The prominent ISO control wheel atop the G9 has settings up to 1600, which I currently consider to be unusable without extreme shrinking or fancy post-production de-noising tricks.

I think I will make ISO 200 my new default. I switched to manually setting ISO because auto-ISO isn't smart enough to balance shutter speed and ISO when in aperture-priority mode.

By the way, I think it's a house finch. It looked much better in person. Compare to the other red bird I shot out my window, with a real camera.

Minwax Clear Brushing Lacquer Wins by Default

 [photo of can of lacquer over table top with inset] Looking at the weather forecast this Saturday morning and realizing that today might be the last opportunity to epoxy my kitchen table before spring, I opened the box of Parks Super Glaze and read the instructions. Turned out that it was only enough to cover 9 sq. ft., and my table was 15.

With the water damage and the putty, and not being particularly fond of the table's design to begin with, I decided that the table just isn't worth buying a second box of glaze. So I instead used the can of Minwax Clear Brushing Lacquer that I happened to have had on hand. I can always use the glaze for the coffee table, on the next reasonably warm day. The lacquer worked well enough, though it won't protect like the glaze would.

Point&Shoot Cameras and Demoralization

 [stock photo of Canon PowerShot G9 camera] I got a good deal on a Canon G9 point&shoot camera about a week ago, now that the G10 is out. I no longer have use of real cameras, and I no longer do photography, but I found I missed having a camera for taking snapshots of friends and such. Y'know, what normal people use cameras for.

One thing I've found so far with the G9 is that I simply don't try to take more than a quick snapshot. For example, for that Minwax shot, I simply held the can up in front of the tabletop, noted the glare but disregarded it, and snapped. My photo demoralization might be because I miss having fast lenses, lower noise, fast AF, and lighting gear, or it might be because I simply no longer do photography.

I might post a review of the G9 later. For now, the review's conclusions are close to my own. I suspect I'll replace the G9 within the year, with a camera phone and maybe an old DSLR with a fast prime, both for snapshots.

(Photo copyright Canon.)


 [photo of QuikWood in use] No, QuikWood is not one of those "enhancement" products that are advertised in spam.

I've been working from my coffee table for a couple weeks, due to my usual home office kitchen table being half-refinished and there being other demands on my energy. Today, I finally made time to try out QuikWood epoxy putty, to fill the missing chunks and slices of tabletop.

I can say that QuikWood is easy to mix and apply, it sands well, it smells bad, and the Tan color thankfully is not as dark once mixed as it looks from the outside of the package.

Next step is to give the table one last sanding, then figure out how to apply the epoxy glaze to the curved tabletop sides evenly.

Flu Shots

Yesterday, I got my first flu shot ever, at a Cambridge Flu Clinic at City Hall (Cambridge, MA, USA). Consultants get all the sick days they want, but none of them paid. :)

The process went smoothly, as far as I could tell. The clinic at this location was a one-time event, lasting 2 hours. I arrived early in the second hour, and the wait-to-be-called number I was given was near 200. The numbers were called in batches, and When I arrived, I timed them casually at very roughly one per minute, and I waited maybe 20 minutes. When my number was called, there were 3 stations administering shots in parallel. All the workers seemed sharp (no needles pun intended), attentive, and cheerful. There was also conspicuous redundancy in verifying egg allergies or other risk factors.

The shot itself was a non-event: the lightest prick I've ever felt from a syringe needle. "That was it? ... That was way too easy," only briefly wondering whether there'd been some mistake.

Future clinics times and locations are listed at that link. If you print out the form from the site and bring it filled-out, you get your number faster, since apparently few people do that.

If you're a Cambridge resident and want a flu shot, these clinics seem like a good way, compared to a doctor's appointment. I suspect the wait is comparable to what you might get at your doctor's office, and you have the flexibility of not having a hard appointment time. The main reason I can think of to go to the doctor instead is that the vaccine at this clinic contained thiomersal, but that you might be able to get a thiomersal-free individual dose from your doctor. I wasn't worried about it.


 [photo of digital clock showing 11:11 time on 11/11 date] Today is Veteran's Day, but one minute of today was significant for other reasons.

A very special woman I used to know -- a hardcore scientist at MIT -- considered the time of day 11:11, as seen on a digital clock, to be lucky. When she'd notice that time, she'd chirp "eleven-eleven!" as she bolted up to run and kiss the face of the clock.

You can bet that I didn't miss observing 11:11 on 11/11.

Those of you who believe in am/pm still have one more opportunity today.

No idea what's gonna happen 11:11 11/11/11.


Obama is going to be President.

I was wondering whether the country will be able to pull ourselves out of this decline. Things are looking up, both because Obama seems the better leader for this period, and because the fact the electorate redeemed itself after the collective mistake of 2004.

Obama II

 [screenshot of Obama acceptance speech on MSNBC] Holy moley. Obama is going to be President. It already registered with my analytical side during McCain's concession speech, but now it's sinking in emotionally.

I'm exceedingly proud to have Obama as the new leader -- and new world image -- of America.

Most Insane Scheme syntax-rules

I mentioned something about Scheme syntax extension to a client, which reminded me of my scariest use of syntax-rules. Basically, I was refining a very powerful and concise XML transformation language, and was implementing it in syntax-rules, for wide portability among Scheme implementations. I did this fully aware of the difficulty. It was easily the most complicated practical use of syntax-rules I've seen, and working with it felt more like assembly-language programming than the usual fairly straightforward pattern manipulation.

To give you an idea, here's a two-line front-end production from the middle of the implementation of one of the structures in the language, along with some explanatory comments and a mnemonic device:

((_       Z S T O U L E R TV EN EB)
 (%htsx:a Z S T O U L E R TV EN EB))

;; Z  = return stack
;; S  = entire source code
;; T  = input type (type of E)
;; O  = output type (expected input type of next action) optimization only.
;; U  = sequence (ultimate) output type
;; L  = "left" output expressions in this output sequence
;; E  = prior expression. must have type T
;; R  = "right" unfinished text in this output sequence
;; TV = top-level bindings to add
;; EN = (named-element context) element name variable or #f
;; EB = (named-element context) element name-to-variable mapping or ()

;; "ze stole our tv, eneb!"

Someone, I don't recall for certain who at the moment, once said (paraphrased) "If your function has ten arguments, you're missing some." In this case, you would have been missing one. :)

So, I claim dubious bragging rights for one of the more insane undertakings of practical use of syntax-rules. But I doubt I'll ever have occasion to try to approach Oleg Kiselyov's insight into Scheme syntax extension. Motivation for aspiring Schemers: if you get as smart as Oleg, you can work for the US Navy in gorgeous Monterey, CA.

Orville Redenbacher Movie Theater Popcorn Tastes Like Chalk

I foolishly thought that, whatever the composition of the crack-laced chemical-butter they use on movie theater popcorn, it must work great in prepackaged foods.

Not so. Orville Redenbacher Movie Theater Popcorn tastes to me more like chalk than delicious chemical-butter.

I want to throw out the rest of the packets in the box, since I can't imagine myself or any guests enjoying it, but I hate to waste it. Maybe I'll drop them in a kitchenette of some academic department. Much like goats and rodents, students will eat anything.

Thai Food In/Near Cambridge

I desperately needed to get outside for a walk today, but I didn't have a camera, so I needed a purpose for the walk. Both of my jackets now have broken zippers, and I needed a book from Borders, so the CambridgeSide Galleria mall was chosen.

Before leaving the mall, I hit the food court for two containers of takeout from Thai Accent. The mango tofu is not quite as good as I remembered it, perhaps due to the time of day, but it's still good. Thai Accent has several vegetarian options, and the woman even checked with me that the egg in the fried rice was OK, after I'd declined the chicken sample with "No, thanks. Vegetarian." Remember that it's mall food court food, and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Other Thai options in and around Cambridge...

Pepper Sky (20 Pearl St., Cambridge) is a block off Mass. Ave. in Central Square, good, affordable, comfortable ambiance. I think a lot of people don't know it's there, since it's not really visible from Mass. Ave. It's next to a Tibetan restaurant, Rangzen, which deserves its own blog entry.

King & I is good, affordable, near the Red Line, has candles on the tables, and is a walk along picturesque Charles St. from the Public Garden and Boston Common. A good place for grad students to bring each other on dates, though the layout is more hallway-oriented than I'd like.

Thai Hut (93 Beacon St., Somerville) is good, and the woman was very sweet to bring me tea while I waited for a walk-in takeout order one very snowy day.

Similans near the Galleria (and next to the best restaurant in town, Helmand) is good. The decor is somewhat fancy, but not as comfortable as King & I. I haven't been there in 2-3 years, but I vaguely recall a koi pond.

Spice & Rice in Inman Square is good, but tries to cover much Asia rather than just regions of Thailand. They went wild with the decor, and it's more cold than warm.

Note that Thai food often contains fish oil. I avoid animal products myself, but I'm sure that I'm occasionally served dishes with fish oil, and there's not much to do about it.

High-Drama Political Internet Video

 [black&white dramatic shot of concerned Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones] The last one you need to watch:

Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones speak out

Earlier to... 2008-10

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