Thursday, January 31, 2008

More reasons to hate MySpace

I'm sure we all have our top 5 reasons to hate MySpace. Here were mine, before I learned that they deleted an atheist/agnostic group for no reason other than that Christian users were offended:

1. It's ridiculously ugly.
2. It's ridiculously annoying.
3. The typical MySpace user is ridiculously annoying, and probably ugly.
4. I kind of dislike social networking sites in general, and MySpace was one of the first.
5. It's so ugly that it deserves to be on here twice.

Now let me add to the top of the list:

1. It is a bastion of intolerance.*

If you have an account on MySpace and you value the freedoms of speech and assembly, I urge you to find an alternative.

* I realize my top 5 list comes across as pretty intolerant. :) Mostly I just think it's an ugly site and if people can stand to use it then they must have pretty low standards. Plus Rupert Murdoch is pretty evil.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Caltrain 1, shwu 1

I have a love/hate relationship with Caltrain. Some days, we're good - really good. It makes me want to be a better person, and I can't imagine my life anymore without it. Other days... well, I'm left utterly disappointed, disillusioned, and - dare I say it? - inconvenienced.

For those unfamiliar with Caltrain, it's the regional rail line that runs between San Francisco and San Jose (it extends to Gilroy, but most people outside of California who don't follow the garlic industry don't care about Gilroy). On peak hours on weekdays, it mostly serves Bay Area commuters who like saving the environment and their cortisol levels, much like NJ Transit or Amtrak regional does in the northeast.

Caltrain is great, as a concept, but they have some serious implementation flaws, the biggest one being their "proof-of-payment" system. Rather than have turnstiles or some other way of checking whether you have a valid ticket before you board, they assume you've bought one, and do random checks onboard (very infrequently). What this means (besides tempting you into cheating the system - which often happens unintentionally because their ticket punching machines are pieces of crap) is that tickets are timestamped and must be used within a certain timeframe - 4 hrs for one way, by 30 min past midnight the day you buy them for day passes, and within 60 days for 10-ride passes (which you must validate using aforementioned crappy ticket punchers each time you ride). This means you can't just buy single tickets or day passes ahead of time; if you want to stock up, the 10-rides are probably the best bet, but only if you are going to use them. The other bad thing about Caltrain is that it isn't BART. BART is the rail service for the entire rest of the bay area - East Bay, North Bay, and San Francisco too. This means if you want to get to the East Bay, or even to the San Francisco airport, you need to transfer to BART, which uses a different ticketing system. Argh x 2.

Anyway, all that said, I can't really bash Caltrain too much, because it does have some cool stuff going for it. One is that they have bike cars - cabins where you can store bikes while you ride - which is great for people like me who like to bike to/from the train station. And it doesn't cost extra, which is nice considering that the bikes take up the space of seats for paying passengers. Plus, their express and limited stop trains make travel much faster for certain commuting trips (Palo Alto to Mountain View, chaching). The other nice thing is that when a train is stopped at a station, they often aren't covering up the track crossings, and so they'll raise the crossing bar while they're stopped to let people who got there just a second too late to cross anyway and get on the train. W00T! ... Except when they don't let the bar up.

On two occasions, this morning being one of them, I've arrived at the station just as the train arrives, and thus can't cross. Usually, the bar rises while the train is stopped to let latecomers cross, but not either of those two times. Once, the train was physically stopped over the crossing, so the bar couldn't go up, and I was angry because the train isn't supposed to stop over the crossing! This time, the train was stopped about 25 feet from the crossing, but they still didn't raise the bar. Double $!*@!!

(Actually, there was another time, a week or two ago, where I got there, saw the train was already there, saw the bar was up, quickly crossed the tracks, but as soon as I crossed and got on the platform, the bar went back down and the train started moving, right past me. So maybe the score is really Caltrain 3, shwu 1.)

So where does my victory come in? Ok, after telling about those other incidents, I really see that Caltrain wins by a landslide. My, let's say, 1/2 point comes from one of the conductors giving me a "destination tag" for my bike the other day. Bikes on Caltrain are expected to have tags saying where they're going so that people can stack the bikes accordingly. My bike didn't have one because I was told you can only get those tags at San Jose or San Francisco (or make them yourself). But the other day one of the conductors actually had some, so I scored one. Too bad that Chris had already made us much nicer looking tags the day before (that I forgot to bring with me). Hmm... make that 1/4 point.

Caltrain 3, shwu 0.25. (>_<)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Publish or perish

In science, they have a saying, "Publish or perish". Basically, you need to publish papers on your research regularly, otherwise no one will think you're worth anything, your career will die a horrible death, and hungry lions will eat you alive. The number of first (or last) author publications you have can factor into everything, from grant applications, to post-doc positions, to job applications, even to internal reviews. A lot of people dislike the emphasis placed on this cold tangible because it is usually at the expense of important intangibles like personality (crap, what do you do when you don't have either?). A person might be productive on paper, but does he or she know how to connect with people, form meaningful collaborations, or motivate others? But despite a growing disillusionment with the publication measuring stick, it is still the status quo, and as I find myself farther along in my PhD, it is becoming more and more relevant to me.

About two years ago, I started writing a paper about my research. Last August, I finally submitted it. One revision, one reformatting, one data uploading, multiple website debuggings, and one hefty payment (not by me, fortunately) later, it is now published, with the caveat that this is just the "provisional" PDF and they haven't formatted it for print or HTML yet. If you want to read something esoteric and boring, though, have at it! Most importantly, after three and a half years doing who knows what, I can finally add something to my resume.

Speaking of papers, I'm also in the midst of the writing process for two other papers, one that's a review of the method I use, and one that's totally unrelated to anything else I'm doing. The review paper should be ready for submission by the end of the month, hopefully, but I have no idea about the other paper. It involves experimental work in which I was in no way involved, and needs a LOT of revision that I can't do, because of said uninvolvement. Plus, while the guy who did the experiments slaved away over the wet bench and the draft of the paper, the rest of us pretty much ignored him. Now, 6 months later, we have all these questions, concerns, and criticisms. Awkward. Paper writing is definitely not easy, even when you don't have to do any actual "work" for it (work being computation, or experiments, or analysis) and are only doing the writing, especially with multiple authors having an equal stake in it. I guess this is all part of the PhD.

Buuuut, let's assume everything gets resolved - that would mean potentially 3 papers published in one year! Not bad, not bad at all. Nobel prize, here I come!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Shout out to Mitch

Things are much clearer and more confusing to me since I discovered Mitch Hedberg. It only seems right to name a blog with Mitch as inspiration, since both subscribe to the same mission: attempt to make sense of the world, impart personal discoveries, and tell everyone what they already know but didn't know that they knew. All three of those are optimistic goals on my part.

The pancake joke
The name for this blog comes from one of Mitch's jokes about pancakes, and I chose it because 1) I agree with him on the pitfalls of pancakes, and 2) for me, life is like a stack of pancakes.

"You can't be like pancakes - all exciting at first, but by the end you're fucking sick of 'em!"

A lot of things to me are "all exciting at first", but the excitement quickly fades as I realize that eating pancakes is a lot of work, and while I'm pretty damn good at the eating the first one or two, enjoyment decreases inversely proportional to commitment required for every pancake after that. Guitar, snowboarding, knitting, blogging - all have fallen prey to my pancake mentality.

I'm not really denouncing pancake mentality. I told someone the other day that I'm too much of a dabbler, and he said that wasn't necessarily a bad thing - those kinds of people can have a lot of fun and get a lot out of life because they like and can do so many things. I replied that those people probably don't win the Nobel prize, and he agreed, but hey, I don't need to win a Nobel prize. I'm super ok with not winning a Nobel prize. At this point in my life, I just want to do things that are fulfilling, and it just so happens that those things are small and many.

So the title of this blog may be a bit of a misnomer. You CAN be like pancakes. Just don't count on winning the Nobel prize.