Sunday, August 30, 2009

Seattle Underground Tour

Putting in a plug for the Seattle Underground Tour, which gives you a great hour-long introduction to Seattle's history. Started in the 1970's by Bill Speidel to fund a grass-roots preservation campaign, the tour gives you a brief overview of Seattle's early history and takes you through Seattle's underground tunnels, which were the city's sidewalks until they raised the streets. Take the tour to learn more*! ;)

* This is quite an interesting story; if you are not in Seattle I recommend reading about this on the internet.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bat pose

Recently at yoga I have been introduced to bat pose, which involves hanging upside-down from a looped strap attached to the wall with the strap on your sacrum (so your back forms the bottom edge of an isosceles triangle), your legs along the outsides of the strap, and your feet on the inside of the strap. It is very fun and relaxing; it has been quite helpful for reducing back tension.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Internet is ruining slang

I recommend reading this fun NY Times article on how the internet has affected the spread of slang. Since the point of using slang is to separate from the actually cool people from the wannabes and the internet makes knowledge of slang available to all wannabes, fairly quickly do slang words cease to be slang and enter the greater cultural vernacular*. The article discusses the spread of slang, the role of slang in social identification, inter-group slang transfer, and the evolution of slang with respect to internet technologies. As a total slang goon, I found this article to be hella rad.

* This might actually be why I create my own slang and abuse the polymorphic term "goon." Only my real friends will pick up the appropriate ways to use my slang. ;)

Bike polo

Today I came upon some pick-up bike polo matches occurring at the tennis court across the street from where I was getting ice cream. It is kind of like roller hockey on bikes: players have sticks with which they handle the ball*. It looks like a technically interesting (and potentially dangerous) sport. I would compare it more to fencing than to something like ice hockey: it seems like technique is much more important than level of physical fitness. It was the first time I had ever seen or heard of such a thing!

According to the US Bicycle Polo Association, the sport is thought to have originated in India, where British troops used bikes to work on their equestrian polo skills. It is also apparently growing in popularity throughout the US and world. :) The NY Times also has a 2007 article about bike polo.

* According to internet sources the stick is supposed to be a mallet, but the players I saw had lightweight metal sticks with thin hollow cylinders at one end. (A really interesting thing was they shuffled teams by putting all n sticks in the middle of the court and randomly throwing n/2 to each goal.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The fine line between self-expression and cyberbullying

Model Liskula Cohen won a court case against Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who maligned her* on the Skanks of NYC blog. Apparently Google initially refused but the Manhattan supreme court ruled that Google, who owned the blog, needed to provide the information. Perhaps I do not understand the gravity of the situation, but I am disappointed that one person's offended vanity sets such a precedence for revealing (conditionally) private information**. It is a slippery slope when people start being punished for saying "mean" things.

* They called her a "skank" and labelled photos of her with similarly derogatory words.
** While I understand cyberbullying to be a serious issue, it seems like Google's lawyers could have made a convincing case that this level of bullying does not pose a physical threat. Perhaps the issue is that people don't know what to do about cyberbullying? It does not seem like the court would have been so harsh had this whole thing happened in print media.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Airline pricing

Anyone interested in economics likely finds airline companies interesting: one of the few things I remember from my introductory economics class was the story of how some airline company realized they could make more money by not filling planes; it is also interesting how budget airlines like Ryanair can offer astoundingly low prices by cutting frills. Airline pricing is also interesting because finding the lowest fare for a given route is NP hard; companies like ITA software have sprung up to solve such problems.

Company business models aside, I find airline pricing to be incredibly interesting because it is one of the few things relevant to my life where supply and demand have such an immediate effect on price. According to Wikipedia, airline reservation systems sometimes have perfect discrimination when it comes to filling each seat of a plane at the highest price a customer would pay without driving the customer away. This is in line with the advice I've gotten over the years about purchasing plane tickets: tickets to leave Friday and return Saturday are expensive because there is high demand from corporate travellers, who don't care what they pay; ticket prices tend to drop after midnight (I hypothesize because reserved seats open up again); waiting for fare wars is a good way to plan semi-spontaneous trips. Plane tickets are cool because you can really improve your quality of life by having a good strategy and having a good strategy is fairly low-cost.

Recently I've been spending a bit of time on Bing travel (formerly Farecast), which compares prices over different dates and offers a prediction of whether to buy or wait with an estimate of the price variability. (A cool thing is that it will also let you set fare trackers that e-mail you the daily price--at some fixed time of day--for some trip.) It shows you graphs of the historical lows and the daily low price, both of which are interesting because they can vary a surprising amount (over $200 for tickets that can be in the low $100's) over the course of a few days (sometimes with seemingly random highs/lows). You can also see longer-term trends: an obvious trend is that ticket prices increase the closer you get to the flight date. I've also discovered fairly high variability (difference sometimes in the hundreds) of tickets over the course of a day; ticket prices do seem to increase quite a bit during the course of a day. (The price difference of flying to different locations is also interesting, since it depends not only on distance but also on demand for flying to that city, whether it is a hub, etc. etc. etc.)

I recommend playing around with Bing travel/Farecast if you are interested in this kind of thing. It is also a great resource for planning trips. ;)

Brain stuck in a rut

This popular NY Times article talks about how stress can cause your brain to go on autopilot, making you do the same (bad) things over and over again when you are stressed for too long.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bed Buddy: another ergonomic secret

Another item people have seen me using and commented on what a good idea it was is my Bed Buddy, which is this rice pillow you can put in the microwave and then on your neck/shoulders/back. I use it every day; it generates moist heat (as opposed to the dry heat you get with the self-heating pads) that is quite effective for relieving muscle soreness/tension.

Trackpad keyboard for mousing-related problems

After mousing aggravated some of my shoulder problems, I switched to using keyboards with mice in them. I've tried a few, but the Adesso Tru Pro has been the best so far. I received it today: it has the slight elevation/separation between two hands, soft keys, and a nice track pad. It is a little big, but I kind of like that.

Previously I was using the Keytronic trackball keyboard, which was okay but not very ergonomic. The trackball also often got stuck, which was annoying. The keys are also pretty loud. I have also used the Lenovo Ultranav, which is basically the Lenovo laptop keyboard with both a touchpad and a ball mouse. I got the version without the number pad on the side so the mouse is in the middle. I found it to be okay but not sufficiently substantial: my hands get kind of funny after typing on it for a while; it might be because it's a mini keyboard.

If you are having shoulder problems with your mousing shoulder, you might want to try switching to a keyboard with a built-in mouse. I also type with my keyboard in my lap, elevated by a Lapinator so that my elbows can be at 90 degrees.

Worried about switching keyboards because you already have a fancy schmancy one you don't want to give up? My friend who was having mousing problems got this touch pad to use with his Kinesis.

Life lessons: computers are pretty bad for you, but the internet is so cool.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What's in a (woman's) name?

This Feministing post talks about how 70% of American women think wives should take their husbands' names and 50% think it should be a legal obligation. I was surprised to read that the law has intervened in cases where the husband wanted to take the wife's last name, where the parents wanted to give their child the mother's last name, and even where the parents wanted the child to have a hyphenated last name.

While I'm not sure I trust these numbers, I have been surprised how the people I went to school with who get married take their husband's last name. My one friend explained to me that she thought it was a nice way to express her love. I'm not sure how I feel about this--it would be if she told me she thought staying home with the kids would be a nice way to express her love. While it is nice that she loves her spouse so much, I would hope that she considers more than just her desire to please him when making such a decision. Especially since changing one's name often has more permanent effects than exiting the workforce for one to n years, it is a pretty big sacrifice to take someone else's last name.

Maybe in second grade I thought for two minutes it might be cool to be Mrs. So-and-So, but the idea of changing my name doesn't make too much sense to me anymore. Also, while I see how deciding on a single name (rather than a hyphenated name) for the children in a family might make their lives easier, in this day and age the choice of propagating the man's name seems fairly arbitrary.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Analyzing data is the new cool thing

According to this NY Times article, studying statistics/social sciences is the new cool thing because of the explosion of data that has come from all of the things going on on the internet. Apparently Google has been hiring people with social sciences backgrounds to try to make sense of all of their data. It's cool that the people with the money now have (what I would say is) more direct motivation to pay people to have at it with data*. This almost makes me regret not doing something cooler with my life, like studying anthropology.

* Analyzing data has always been cool to physical and social scientists, but there hasn't always been a lot of money there.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Cooler temperatures more conducive to sleep

An article backing up the claim I often make about cooler temperatures being better for sleep.

I love my feet

I was amused to find a New York Times article about how most people don't take sufficiently good care of their feet and are embarrassed about it. Though I used to wash my feet every night, I can't say I'm among the responsible few who moisturize my feet every day. Maybe it's because I'm a runner*, but despite my general negligence I actively love my feet.

* According to the article, runners and other athletes are more likely to love their misshapen feet.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Language may shape thoughts

Sharon Begley has this nice Newsweek article about Stanford professor Lera Boroditsky's research on how language might shape thoughts. Some examples: the gender of nouns in different languages seem to affect perceptions of the entity associated with the noun; people have a better memory for colors if there are distinct names for different shades; speakers of a language with different words for two concepts often have an easier time distinguishing between them.

From a previous blog post, you might have seen that I am very interested in this sort of thing but don't have much background.

Also, I love Sharon Begley.

Fair sentencing for crack and cocaine

I'm a little late in posting this, but I was reading a back issue of Newsweek and found this nice article I agree with about disparate sentencing of crack vs. power cocaine*.

Brief summary: The problem has been that crack cocaine dealers receive disproportionately long sentences compared to dealers of power cocaine. According to the article, "If federal prosecutors convicted you of peddling five grams of crack, you got the same five-year minimum sentence as someone dealing 500 grams of powder." This differential sentencing has hit black communities particularly hard because they tend to use crack more than cocaine. Cose urges the administration to change this "dimwitted" policy and focus on more real drug problems, such as abuse of opioid painkillers.

* This is a subject about which I have occasional and only moderately well-informed but strong opinions.

Relationships are bad for health

Here is a New York Times article I could cutely use to support my view that relationships are harmful to one's health. The article, titled Divorce, It Seems, Can Make You Ill, discusses a study that shows people who have been divorced or widowed have poorer health, which the study measures by looking at rates of chronic health problems. Unfortunately, this article is sensationalist and good for nothing more than generating conversation. One of the only reasons I mention it is because it fits in with my general view that relationships can cause particularly traumatic experiences.

The article does a lot of scientific wishful thinking about why it is that divorced or widowed people might have more chronic health problems: well, having a spouse is good for you because they can take you to the doctor, but the end of a relationship is usually traumatic, so perhaps this is why you never recover. The article cites a couple of other studies: one that shows people taking care of loved ones with Alzheimer's experience telomere shortening, and one where married couples' physical wounds take longer to heal after conjugal discord. While this information is all interesting and good, it seems rather narrow-minded to focus just on relationships: divorce, death of a spouse, and fighting with a spouse don't seem to be on a different level than other traumatic life events such as losing one's job, losing one's home, or fighting with a peer. A logical set of other studies to mention are the ones showing positive correlations between traumatic life events and/or depression and chronic illness. From those studies we might conclude that the results of this study are either obvious or confirm the hypothesis that relationships tend matter enough to have the potential to affect one's stress levels.

Anyway, the fact that I wrote a whole blog post on this shows that even when articles about studies are not that useful for furthering scientific knowledge, they are useful for generating (perhaps useless) conversation*.

* Although it is important to recognize the flaws of such articles!