Summer nostalgia

Today really felt like summer, reaching 91° in the afternoon. I ate lunch outside on my balcony, and extended my bike ride. I used to eat outside on nice days at home, and as I got close to the bay on my bike, I was reminded of summer bike rides in South Carolina.

I’ve been thinking about two other summer memories this past week, both about small-town eateries:

Frosty’s Dairy Bar
Located in Bristol, New Hampshire, this is a great spot to hit for some ice cream after a day of waterskiing on Newfound Lake.

Dilly’s Corner
Just minutes from my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, I spent many summer nights eating an order of “Chicken & Chips” (chips as in fries) before finishing the meal with some ice cream. There’s a nice write up of the ordering process and a great shot of the menu on

I hope to return to these places soon. It’s been a while.


I spent a few minutes playing with Wolfram|Alpha today, its first full day of public availability. While the launch of this service was very recent, Wolfram|Alpha has a longer history than you might think. It’s built off of Mathematica, which I never used as a student but I certainly heard about from my math-loving friends. Mathematica was released over 20 years ago and named by Steve Jobs.

At first glance, Wolfram|Alpha looks like a traditional search engine, but it’s different than the types of search engines you’re used to associating with a web service.

It strives to provide answers to factual queries based on data visualization and computation. Yeah, I don’t think I explained it well either. Let’s just jump to some sample queries to show what I mean. I’m pretty bad at calculating time, so let’s have computers tell me the answers:

How much longer until my birthday? (my first query!)
[days until dec 31, 2009]

How much time do I have to ride my bike? I don’t have a bike light.
[time until sunset] or just [sunset]

When is this 87-minute movie going to be over if I start watching at 7:15?
[7:15 + 87 minutes]

Here’s the first query I tried which didn’t work. I wanted to see if I could add up times (in MM:SS format) to see how much video I’ve uploaded to YouTube. I put in these sample values:
[4:15 + 2:10 + 18:37]

Bummer. But with a little bit of find/replace I could get an input that Wolfram|Alpha understood:
[4 minutes 15 seconds + 2 minutes 10 seconds + 18 minutes 37 seconds]

I entered all of those queries with limited knowledge about what types of questions Wolfram|Alpha could answer, and had no idea what a correct syntax should look like. Fortunately, it does a pretty good idea of understanding what I’m trying to ask, which is what’s expected of search engines today. After I played around with time-based computation, I tried a couple of other queries:

[population of doylestown, pa and population of sunnyvale, ca]

This one did not work:
[populations of doylestown, pa and sunnyvale, ca in 1983]

Here’s a fun one that I originally learned from Google’s calculator:
[number of horns on a unicorn]

And this one from Monty Python:
[velocity of an unladen swallow]

As you can see, the results are better when you’re more specific:
[velocity of an unladen european swallow]

Those should be enough to get you started, but if you need more inspiration or are looking for more diverse examples, check out this list.

Google Sky Map demo

Tomorrow night I’ll finish my Android trial, and I’m honestly not sure which device my SIM card will be sitting in at 7:00. I’ll definitely continue to use both platforms; I just need to decide which one will be my primary device.

In addition to a great notification system and the ability to run background apps, I’ve found another point in Android’s favor, and had a fun time geeking out with it last night. Google Sky Map, which was born in Google’s Pittsburgh office, allows you to do what you’d expect from Google: search the sky. I noticed that none of the daytime/indoor demos really showed the app “in the wild,” so I waited for the moonrise last night and then shot a quick video. I decided to search for the Moon for three reasons: First, I know what the Moon looks like and can confirm the app’s accuracy. Second, it’s the only natural object in the night sky that my video camera is able to capture. And finally, I was hoping that it would lead me to David Moon. He totally freaks out when I find him at night. It’s hilarious.

Here’s my quick demo:

My camera did pretty well on full-auto; I think you get the gist of what’s going on. The bright circle is the Moon. You’ll note that the Moon actually appears a bit to the left of where Sky Map said it would be. It’s possible that my compass needs to be calibrated. The difference could also be caused by the fact that at my location, magnetic north is about 14° east of true north, and the app currently does not account for magnetic declination.

Did you like the music? It’s my first time publishing a video with YouTube’s AudioSwap feature. I chose a short song called “Happy and Happy” because it sounded corny enough to be in one of those science videos you watch in school. I’d also like to note that this is the first time I made use of one of YouTube’s new tags to make sure the video was presented properly. I uploaded a raw HDV file, which is 1440×1080 pixels. But that doesn’t sound like it matches the 16:9 aspect ratio, does it? That’s because DV and HDV use a horrible concept called “non-square pixels” which I’m sure was a good idea at some point for technical reasons, but in today’s world is just an annoyance. So, to make sure YouTube knew to present it as widescreen, I added this tag: yt:stretch=16:9. Worked like a charm, and it meant I didn’t have to do any transcoding on my end.

So, the next time you see one of those articles about “Object X will be visible to the naked eye tonight,” grab your (or your friend’s) Android device and find that object in no time. Or if you want to find something tonight, try searching Google (without the brackets) for [tonight’s sky] or something similar. Before heading outside, however, check to see if the object you’re looking for appears above the yellow horizon line. If it’s below the horizon, you won’t be able to see it without some heavy-duty Earth-moving equipment, so make sure you look up the best viewing time for your area.

Don’t have access to an Android device? Don’t forget you can still explore the sky with your browser or with Google Earth before heading out to find things yourself.

I haven’t done a lot of stargazing in my life, and it’s a bit difficult to do where I live now, but I have a few favorite sky-watching moments:

  1. As a birthday present for me one year in elementary school, my parents won a fundraising auction for an evening with Derrick Pitts at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. We got to look through a pretty sweet telescope on the roof.
  2. In 4th grade, my science teacher hosted an astronomy night. It was temporarily cancelled due to weather but then was back on at the last minute. The next morning, I told my homeroom teacher that I went to the astronomy night and she looked really concerned because she thought it was cancelled. I remember this because she always seemed worried about everything.
  3. When I was 11 years old, I went to an Audubon camp in Maine in August and saw my first meteor shower. I’m guessing it was the Perseids, and it was amazing.
  4. In March of 1997 when my family was on vacation in Colorado, a partial lunar eclipse occurred while the Comet Hale-Bopp was especially bright, and I’m pretty sure we spotted it. At the same time, Hanson’s “MMMBop” was a popular song, and Andy Signore wrote a parody song honoring this and published on the back of the creatively-named S’Edition, a parody of The Edition, our school’s paper.
  5. I saw the Perseids again last summer.

Slowly turning into Reid

Not only am I now biking on the weekends, I’m tracking my journey using My Tracks. I recently decided to give Android a try for a week, and I’ve been trying out some things that I can’t do on my iPhone, like run background applications. Since whenever I mention that I’ve started riding my bike people ask how far I ride (and I never know the answer), I figured My Tracks could help me out. It turns out that the one-way trip between Google and my apartment is about 3.7 miles. I didn’t go all the way to the building today because of concert traffic, but at least now I have an answer.

Star Trek

When I was about 10 years old, every day after school I used to get some cookies and milk and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation on TV. The series had recently ended and they played it five nights a week on UPN 57. I eventually got around to seeing all of the old movies and kept up with the new ones, and then in college watched the entire Original Series within about a couple of weeks on DVD. I’ve bits of Deep Space 9, Voyager, and even Enterprise, but never on a consistent basis so I’m hoping those will pop up (legally) online someday.

The Next Generation is my favorite series, but I really enjoyed The Original Series too, even though they only visit two planets: “The Soundstage Full Of Plaster-based Rocks Where You Can See The Shadows Of The Trees On The Sky During Lightning” and “The One That Looks Just Like Earth.”

Last night, I finally got a long-awaited Trek fix and saw the new Star Trek movie. I don’t want to give away anything to those who haven’t seen it yet, so I’ll just say that I was a bit worried going in and even during the movie, but in the end I enjoyed it. The characters were pretty true to their original personalities, and even the plot uses one of Star Trek’s favorite devices. It wasn’t the most serious Star Trek content, but their movies are generally fun and let the characters let loose a little more, so they honored that tradition. I could totally have done without the Nokia ad, though (it’s like watching one of their cheesy “concept” videos about the future), but it only lasts a few seconds and I didn’t notice any other intrusive placements in the film.

After the movie we ate at Tomatina, which was really good. We had garlic rolls and a Margherita pizza, both recommended.  I don’t often go to good pizza places with friends out here. It reminded me of home, although just seeing Star Trek may have helped with that feeling.

Question for B.J. Novak

Last night, I went to a performance by B.J. Novak, a writer for The Office who is perhaps now best known as playing Ryan on the same show.

After his stand-up routine, he started taking questions from the audience, and said he’d be happy to talk about The Office. I couldn’t think of any questions at the time (I was running on no sleep), but when I got back to my apartment, I remembered something that I’ve often wondered. This is what I’ll have to ask B.J. the next time I see him:

The Office is shot as a documentary. Do you think the characters watch it?

If the documentary is a TV series, I’d guess that at least some of them do watch it, and that Michael tunes in for every episode to evaluate how entertaining he is. If it’s a single film, they’ll probably all go to the premiere, and then have an extraordinarily awkward day at work, if they ever see each other again.

Humor is in the genes

Here’s a snippet of our dinner conversation when I went home for Easter.

My grandmother was telling us about a recent exchange on a bus:

Bus Driver: [talking about his job] It keeps me out of my wife’s hair.
My grandfather: But it doesn’t keep you off the streets.

Zing! My grandmother said that the driver probably went home and told his wife about a funny old man on his bus.

“What old man?” my grandfather interjected.

We all laughed. My grandfather held up his hands and said, “No charge.”

My apology to Ai

Ai, Nelson‘s favorite pronoun, is mad at me. Why? Because she’s offended by weather. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but this is how girls think. So, Ai, allow me to say here on my blog, from the bottom of my heart, that I’m sorry.

Here’s what went down. Last night, at an event organized by Ai, we surprised Nelson with a birthday dinner at Vung Tau in San Jose. It was my first time at a Vietnamese restaurant, and while I was terrified of what I might eat, the food actually very good, including some spongy vegetable I had never seen before in an unidentified soup. That part of the evening went pretty well, and I even brought a sufficient amount of cash for when it was time to pay the bill, although I did have to ask for change. (I still I can’t believe that in 2009, cash is something I find myself using, but I could write an entire series of blog posts about how I hate carrying around paper and why restaurants should be better equipped to handle multi-card payments.)

After dinner, we headed to the Peacock Lounge in Sunnyvale. It’s a bar, the type of venue I could write countless more parenthetical complaints about, but I was happy to attend and support Nelson on his birthday. Things were going pretty well, I was doing okay with talking to Nelson’s friends in between segments of faux interest in whatever sports they were showing on the TVs, but then Ai confronted me about something.

“So I was reading your blog,” she said.

“Uh oh,” I replied, secretly thrilled that anyone had read it, regardless of whether or not it was about to lead to me getting yelled at.

She then told me that she had serious issues with what I had said about California in one post. She claimed that I said that I wouldn’t miss my friends, and called my description of weather and seasons (for the benefit of Californians) “condescending.”

She schooled me a bit on her history with, “I spent some time living in Illinois. I know what weather is.”

My post was meant to exclude Californians who had spent some time living in Illinois, but I forgot to explicitly state that so again, Ai, I’m sorry.

At the time, I was fatigued and not thinking straight, so I attempted to get out of trouble using logic and not just apologizing. After I pointed out out several flaws in her accusations with quotes from my post, like “I like California,” and “I will miss some people,” she said that it’s not her fault if she misunderstood what I wrote. At this point, I may have, if one interprets my words a certain way, subtly implied that she has poor reading comprehension skills when I told her, “You have poor reading comprehension skills,” and noted that I write at an advanced level. Eventually, when the conversation got to the point of “Oh, boy, she might not be taking this argument as a joke like I am,” (this happens to me a lot) I came to my senses and added this to my Gmail Tasks list on my iPhone: “Apologize to ai because girls are scary and I always agree with them as a life rule.”

So why did I decide to apologize? It’s a defense mechanism I’ve developed over time, and it’s part of a (previously) strategy that I think I’ve only shared with Ted until now. Two main rules of this strategy are:

  1. In an argument where you are forced to take sides, always agree with the girl.
  2. When in doubt, apologize.

Let’s go over #2, since it is the relevant rule here: When in doubt, apologize. Even if I think it’s a situation where there is no argument and nobody should feel guilty, I just play it safe and fill any awkward silences or otherwise confusing moments with an apology. Let’s see if it saves me this time around.