Monday, December 14, 2009

New personal webpage

I've finally gotten around to remaking my personal/academic webpage. The previous version was made around the time that I applied for the Goldwater scholarship, but it has since worn my eyes down. The current version is basically a carbon-copy of Tony Hosking's homepage, minus the rugby, professional service, and other meat and potatoes. The template is actually trivial to use in iWeb, so i'm not sure why I didn't do it earlier.

The content is about the same, but I am now able to fill in some of the vague paragraphs with actual projects. Of course, it will still be a while before I can pick and choose what projects to list.. but it will come soon enough. I'm not keen on the old-style personal page. My hobbies are probably none of your business online, unless i'm on a hobby-specific website or you've met me online.

I should write a post about my changing views of facebook publicity-cum-voyeurism, but it won't come out right tonight. Hopefully I can do some writing over the holiday season.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Application Extravaganza

Just a short update.

I was not picked as one of this year's CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Award winners, runners-up, or anything honorable to mention. Apparently less experience is better? I admittedly had a weak application, but that was largely not my fault.

As duly noted in my previous post, I planned to apply to five graduate schools. In fact, I applied to five graduate schools (though I substituted UCLA for Purdue), and almost all parts of my application are submitted and out of sight. Most of the hard work of applying was done mid-November, with GRE scores and transcripts handled right after Thanksgiving break. All that's left now is to finish the NDSEG (due first week of January), and shoo the remaining letter-writers towards the letter-collecting website before Wednesday.

I remain fairly confident about my chances of admittance to these graduate schools. For the Cambridge-related things, I have no clue as to the strength of my applications and nominations, but should hear back some sort of news within a months' time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Graduate School Applications

Well, after the two month-plus ordeal of getting off my Churchill and Cambridge applications, I have to start all over again. Most Computer Science graduate school applications are due in roughly 1 month, so now is prime time for making sure that everything will get turned in on time.

The past few days I have been spending most of my time on the Statement of Purpose. While I have already written more than 6 drafts for my Personal Statement (for fellowships), these two documents are completely different entities. While recommendations, transcripts, and GRE scores are common to both fellowship applications and graduate school applications, the personal statement serves two very different purposes.

For fellowships, the Personal Statement is a motivational essay about how you enjoy research, how it's your only goal in life, and to present the air of having your whole life and research direction planned out. In this way, it is a contest to have the most appealing story, and it shouldn't be surprising that these are more airy and idealistic. This is not helped at all by competitions like the NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which demands that in every section that you demonstrate how your research proposal, personal statement, etc. has "broader impacts" on society beyond Computer Science. This may be easy if you work in a cancer lab ("I want to cure cancer!"), an oceanography lab ("i want to save the whales!"), or a climate lab ("I want to stop global warming!"), but invites foolish writing. How can you tie researching process calculi to saving humanity?

For graduate school applications, the statement of purpose is much simpler: you only need to say what research interests you and why, explain why you would be a good graduate student, and why you should attend school X. In this way it is more of a written interview for a research job. Phillip Guo makes the same distinction in his useful writing on fellowship applications. I have also found Jean Yang's series of posts about applying to graduate school as a useful measuring stick, as she applied to the same caliber of schools that I intend to apply to (and in the same field approximately).

Speaking of schools, here's my preliminary list of schools to which I'll be applying. I hope to have the list finalized by the end of the week, because GRE scores and such need to start moving to the schools soon.

1. University of Washington
2. University of Maryland
3. University of Texas-Austin
4. University of Colorado-Boulder
5. Purdue University

UW is the overwhelming first choice, because Steph has a full time position in Redmond. There are also several professors at UW whose research I like (Grossman, Ernst, Notkin, Eggers, Ceze, to name a few). In the event I don't get accepted there, I would still find research at any of the other institutions to be interesting, but would not like the living situation very much.

There are two remaining hurdles before my applications are made: transcripts, and GRE scores. I have yet to get my Tohoku classes transferred to my Purdue transcript due to a series of frustrating delays. Hopefully the last of those will be a meeting on November 20. I also have yet to receive my GRE score report, since it was lost in a mailbox malfunction a few months ago, apparently. Should be receiving it this week or next.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cross-compiling backwards

Lately I've been working on some Safari/webkit hacking, which means that I've become somewhat familiar with Xcode, C++, and vaguely familiar with the Webkit codebase.

As part of our research (to be detailed later) we forked a random nightly of Safari 3.2-era WebKit, and made some various modifications. A few months ago Snow Leopard came out, which is OS X 10.6 for those of you not keeping track. This new OS version only uses Safari 4.0; this led to several difficulties in trying to compile and run Safari 3.2 against OS X 10.6 SDK.

Eventually, I found out that you can retarget development against specific OS SDK's. Thus the solution to the problem was in effect to cross-compile downwards to 10.5 on my 10.6 machine. After most of yesterday spent recompiling WebKit with various combinations of flags, I can finally run our research project on my personal machine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

New Music

Lately i've been getting into some fairly underground electronic music. Here's some pointers:
  • soma.fm has some really nice radio stations, especially Groove Salad (chill, downtempo) and Beat Blender (downtempo, minimal, ambient)
  • Dublab also has a good radio station, but tends to have a lot more variety in programming
  • Pipedown. is a nice music blog that seems to cover downtempo, bass, and dubstep. Sort of like Mary Ann Hobbs. They also have pointers to other blogs, lots of shorter mixes, podcasts, etc. if you want to explore new artists and sounds.
I'll blog about specific new artists sometimes, since I know lots of people are too lazy to go find artists themselves (or for some reason think I have any shred of authority over what is cool).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

De facto blogging hiatus

Since I've landed in America and started the old flow of things, I'm been extremely busy. In fact, I've scarcely had time to read the New York Times, Metafilter, or any other pleasure reading in the past few weeks. If not for my deathly boring Abstract Algebra class, I doubt even my diary would keep (mostly) updated.

This month, I'm taking a light credit load (Operating Systems, Astronomy, Abstract Algebra, and an Honors Project). Despite this, I'm at least as crunched for time as the infamous semester from hell when I had 20 credit hours and a job. Part of this is the honors project: it is a lot of work, but in the end I will be proud to be one of the few to submit a report describing a non-trivial development. More important to the formula is my jumble of applications that are being assembled and spat out like foam out of a nerf gun.

This month, I'm preparing my applications for CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Award, Winston Churchill Fellowship, Gates Cambridge Fellowship, and an application to study at Cambridge for an MPhil (like a Master's). Next month, I will be working on the NSF fellowship and going to OOPSLA conference in Orlando, and in November it will be crunch time not only for 5+ graduate school applications, but also paper writing. At least i've gotten the GRE out of the way (that was last week).

For all these reasons I seldom have time to write interesting posts here. I'm not entirely certain this will change, at least until the end of application season (next semester). For now, you can follow my Twitter microblog.

Brian

Monday, August 3, 2009

Why I am alone at ChoCo Cro

Japanese culture never ceases to amaze me. There is always some new idiosyncrasy that sneaks up behind me, giggles a little bit, whacks me in the head and runs away. Other times, these visibly small but deep cultural differences are like a flickering monitor, too inherent to notice if you are staring too directly, but easy to discern if you are looking less intently. In a country with unwritten social codes, polite service, and leniency towards foreigners, many interesting cultural quirks go unexplained or unnoticed.

Today I decided to do some writing in one of the many trendy ‘coffee shops’ in downtown Sendai. Trendy because, independent of the taste of the product, they are almost always crowded with yapping women. While this is almost the same as McDonalds in Japan, there is a much more specific crowd for coffee shops. Simply, Japanese patronize coffee shops for one of two reasons: to feel ‘Western’ by drinking Starbucks or Tullys, or to partake in sweet pastries.

In my current location, it is mainly the sweets that drive business. ChoCo Cro is a store whose namesake is their chocolate croissants, and whose origin and flagship store resides in the ever-trendy Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. To be fair, the chocolate croissants are very delicious in their own right, and are much better than croissants I’ve eaten in America. With such tasty food, you would expect the tables to be full of caffeine-addled young professionals working on their laptops and the occasional boisterous conversation. However, in this shop I am the only member of the former, and everyone else in the cafe is in the latter group. To make matters worse, I’m the only one in this section not wearing high heels.

In Japan, sweet pastries have only one target audience: women, ladies, and girls. It is seen as a sign of weakness or indulgence for a male to eat sweets past childhood; ironically enough, wearing skin-tight, circulation-restricting jeans, or spending an hour on your man-hairdo, has much less of feminine connotation here than chowing down on a dainty donut or flaky chocolate croissant. Struggling to understand this state of affairs, I consulted a female Japanese friend. According to her, the pressure for women to be unhealthily thin and prim does not conflict with their consumption of sugar-laden snacks; on the contrary many of them simply substitute a balanced meal for a sweet treat and a brisk walk between clothing stores.

Of course there are some men who sit in this store, but they are invariably conversing with one of the opposite gender. It would seem that they are punishing themselves with over-steeped black coffee (or some drink darker than their partner’s) as penance for their presence in a sweets store. The rules of sweets consumption are not quite as black (and white) at a Starbucks, because nearly every drink sold there has a week’s worth of sugar. That said, I’ve never seen any Japanese men pick out a chocolate chip scone from the glass case.

All of this complicated posturing is par for the course in Japan- I’d have to write for a few days to scratch the surface of Japanese psyche concerning gender stereotypes. Needless to say, its no surprise I’ve had little success independently breaking into the underground queer scene in Sendai: if it is common to put so much social judgement into something as simple as eating a chocolate croissant, then I can’t begin to fathom how elaborate and layered the Japanese gaydar must be.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thoughts on persuasive writing

[This is an edited version of a discussion required for my technical writing class. As I rather like my own analogy, I thought I would crosspost here as well]

As a full-time student, I do lots of persuasive writing on a nearly daily basis: I complete my work for class.

Of course, this is more or less expected of most such students, but do not be fooled by the myriad topics of your homework- in the end, they are all just variations on persuasive communication. The trick is that you have to correctly identify whom you are persuading, their attitude, take into account their likely reactions just as you would in any other form of persuasive communication (say, as in writing a business memo). As I'm sure all of you are intimately familiar with homework, let me review a few key concepts of persuasive writing, interpreted through the analogy of homework.

Being cooperative: If you want a good grade from your teacher or grader, being cooperative is always important for setting the tone of the interaction. This is especially important in writing assignments, because whoever ends up reading your assignments likely would rather be doing more interesting things (as opposed to figuring out why you didn't follow instructions). If you complete the assignment in the incorrect format, or submit it to the wrong place or in the wrong manner, you are being uncooperative. This gives the impression that you do not value the time of those who read your writing, and you are less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt.

On modesty: Invariably, once in a while you think that you deserve exception. In school, this can take many forms- I deserve an extension, I deserve reconsideration, I deserve leniency, and so on. However, stating that you deserve any of these things to your teacher is a quick way to be ignored or worse. The best way to compromise on a potentially troublesome request, idea, or argument is to express yourself with modesty. Explicitly adding that “you may be asking quite a bit” to your exceptional requests acknowledges that you may be inconveniencing someone else, and have the thoughts of others under consideration.

Exemplifying fair-mindedness: Chances are very good that your teacher has been studying the topic of your coursework for much longer than you have. Thus, when making arguments it may be helpful to show that your line of thought has considered alternative opinions and viewpoints. To do otherwise insults the intelligence and background of your teacher by doing nothing to allay their likely questions and concerns. More importantly, relating your idea to other ideas demonstrates that you have a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. In the same vein as being cooperative, avoiding logical fallacies and disingenuous arguments also demonstrates the fair-mindedness of the student.

As one moves in either direction between school and work, keep in mind that the rules for communicating persuasively are largely the same, but the environment and audience differ.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Figuring out how to complicate my semester

Over the past week or two i've been getting serious about narrowing down the fellowships I plan to apply for later this year. I started off looking at quite a handful:
and all the acronyms like
Of course, I cannot possibly apply to all of these programs and still have time for eating/sleeping/homework, so I have to narrow them down a bit.

Fellowships for study in the UK

Of these, many of them are for 1-2 year tenure of study in United Kingdom institutions. To narrow down the field, I looked at departments to see who has the greatest number of possible advisors, and surprisingly Oxford does not have a computer science department quite nearly as impressive as my two top picks, Imperial College London and Cambridge University. This rules out the Rhodes, which is specifically for study at Oxford. Similarly, while the Marshall fellowship recipient can study at many tenable universities in the United Kingdom, sadly Imperial College is not one among them. Thus, I am left with a choice between the Churchill, Gates Cambridge, and the Marshall scholarship; since the Marshall does not have as good of a stipend as either of the other fellowships, I might as well not apply (since there will be much competition among Marshall applicants to attend schools other than Oxford/Cambridge).

At this point I'm going to concentrate on the Churchill Scholarship; explicitly concentrating on the Gates Cambridge is not possible, as it is part of the normal application to Cambridge graduate programs. There are only 10-15 Churchill Scholars per year, but I think I have a decent chance, considering my attempts at research thus far and the awards it begot; at least half of the Churchill scholars have previously received the Goldwater scholarship. Moreover, it is definitely time for a Computer Science major to recieve- the last time it happened was in 2003.

Were I to be awarded either distinction, it would fund up to 2 years of graduate study in a MPhil program (like a Master's degree), plus a decent stipend for living. The likely plan of study is split into two options: the first option is 10 classes and a small report/thesis, and the second is 6 classes plus a substantial research project. There is also the advantage of being at one of the best institutions in the world, and being in very close proximity to Microsoft Research Cambridge. Without the award, the chances of studying at Cambridge for a year are slim due to financial considerations (especially if someone is coming with me).

Fellowships for the United States (Doctoral)


The considerations for normal doctoral graduate fellowships are not completely understood yet, due to the inherent uncertainty involved in concurrently considering a PhD program in the United States and a MPhil program abroad (followed presumably by the PhD program in the United States). Many doctoral fellowships cannot be taken abroad, nor can they be deferred for a year as many graduate admissions can be. This will require a lot of flow-chart diagrams and tough decisions, but as the deadlines are in the later half of fall semester, I have some time to figure out my options.

While almost all doctoral students in Computer Science receive tuition waivers and research or teaching assistantships, recieving a graduate fellowship can significantly increase your options. I have heard many stories of automatic grad-school acceptance following the announcement that the applicant has a multi-year fellowship funded by an external agency. Furthermore, you are not limited by the availability of grant funds in choosing your advisor or thesis/research interests. Probably most exciting is the permanent honor of listing a fellowship on your CV :)

At the outset, there is the Hertz, the NDSEG, and the NSF fellowships, which are listed here left to right according to prestige. The Hertz is an ultra-competitive national fellowship similar to the Churchill, Rhodes, and other non-acronym fellowships; however, it has an infamous reputation for a grueling and masochistic 2-round interview process. I believe my application is probably quantatively similar to others who would apply for the Hertz, but it may not be in my best interests to pursue it. For one, it would be extremely stressful to apply for the Hertz and the Churchill (and others) at the same time, and if I do end up going to Cambridge for a year, then I cannot use the Hertz there.

The NDSEG and NSF are still quite competitive (about 100 and 2000 awardees a year, respectively) but may be a better probabilistic use of my time. Furthermore, they are due in November and January, so by that point I will have my personal statement polished to a diamond, my GRE scores satisfied (hopefully), and I will be nearly done with my graduate school applications anyway.


Any way you look at it, I still have a mountain of application work to do this coming fall, so I am already in June beginning to plan and triage all of the myriad statements, prompts, reference letters, and so on. Here's my top-level list so far:

Churchill Scholarship Application
Cambridge Graduate Studies Application (required for Churchill and Gates Cambridge)
NDSEG Application
NSF Application
CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Application (again)
Senior Awards at Purdue
(tentatively) 5 Graduate school applications

Each of the above involves a personal statement (of varying lengths and foci), at least 3 letters of reference, mundane form-filling, official transcripts, statement of research plan, and in some cases GRE scores.


...I suppose I should start thinking about how I can thank my recommendation-writers if I actually win any of these things :)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

These shoes rule, these shoes suck!

I have only worn the new shoes for a week as of this writing, so these are only my first impressions.

So far, I have had a lot of fun wearing my VFF KSO's for only a minor amount of pain and inconvenience. As i'm breaking them in (as well as my feet), I have tried to wear them wherever possible. My favorite places to wear them in the second half of my American vacation:

-running up the lawn part of The Gorge amphitheatre
-driving the car (basically barefoot)
-jumping up/down banks near a river

Places that didn't work as well:

-long distance walking on pavement/sidewalk (although it's probably just that i'm not used to it yet)
-airport security
-carrying heavy things in dicey places
-while dancing

In general they work great for me on slopes or places where I need good, lightweight footing. They are not the best idea when carrying or lifting heavy objects in uncontrolled environments; in other words, they would work fine for weight lifting in a gym, but not for lugging around 50lb suitcases through public transit. This is mostly because of the damage 50 lbs can do when landing on a single toe with less than a centimeter of material between luggage and toe.

Unfortunately, the story for TSA is not terribly clear; while I have read reports of TSA screeners waving off the shoes as harmless or not shoes, that was not the assessment I was given at Sea-Tac Airport earier today. I actually went through the scanner with them on, then as I was collecting my bag and laptop another screener got curious about my wierd looking shoes. It wouldn't be so bad, except for the fact that I was not wearing socks and I haven't washed my shoes (yes, you can and should wash them) since buying them a week ago.

While dancing, bouncing, raving, or otherwise gyrating, it is unnerving to have no 'bounce' or cushion on your heels, and doing all your ups and downs on the balls of your feet is very tiring. Just as with luggage on public transit, wearing these shoes on a crowded dance floor is not recommended. Especially in the presence of intoxicated or otherwise mentally altered people, playing chance with someone stepping on you toes is not something I would advocate any more than walking through a city sidewalk (or festival campsite!) without any protection.

We'll see in the next few weeks how the shoes (and the wearer) fare up in more normalized everyday use. I also hope to try some short runs in them to see whether it works or not.

Friday, May 29, 2009

How to buy wierd shoes

I've had my eyes on these shoes for quite a few months (hat tip to some reply in an Ask Metafilter post). Unfortunately, they are neither marketed nor sold in Japan, at least according to manufacturer's website. Luckily, Michigan had the most retailers of any state I was planning to visit, so I was feeling lucky about my chances of snagging a pair.

Until I remembered that I was visiting WEST Michigan, where everything is closed early on Saturday and all day on Sunday. Unfortunately, we were about 30 minutes too late to get fitted at The Outpost of Holland, so the next day we drove to the Gazelle Sports location on the east side of Grand Rapids (where stuff is kinda-open on Sundays). I got my size fitted and everything, but they unfortunately only carry the classic model, and I want the KSO (keep stuff out) model.

And now, a brief aside on classic versus KSO models of the FiveFinger shoes. The choice between the two is mostly a matter of taste: ostensibly the KSO, with a covered mesh shoe-top can keep stuff out (that's where the KSO name comes from), but I mainly avoided the classic model because it looks like a ballerina slipper. Judging by how much attention my muted solid black KSO's attract, the constant sideshow afforded by classic model may be just too distracting to get used to.

Still determined to get shoes while in a country where they retail, I returned to the Outpost on my way out of Michigan and they thankfully carried the exact color and model I wanted. Unfortunately they did not carry size 43 (which is probably my real size) so I got a 44 instead. This would be a huge problem for classic model, since there is no strap to keep the shoe from flying off your feet. Fortunately, the slightly too big size has not been too much of a hassle yet, aside from more frequent friction (more on that later).

If you live in America but your nearest store does not carry the exact model that you like, I recommend fitting for a classic model and then ordering online direct from the manufacturer. This way, you can be sure that it will fit fine without extra-tight straps, and Vibram (manufacturers of the shoe) has a generous return and exchange policy should you find that the sizes do not work out to your favor.

If you live in a country without an official retailer, your options are a bit more limited. Over at Birthday Shoes, there is an effort to collect data on VFF shoe size and how it correlates to actual foot length and US/UK "normal" shoe sizes. Also, used pairs of shoes do show up on Ebay from time to time, so that is another option which may work out in different countries.

Above all, make absolutely sure that you have the right size, because it may be difficult to exchange them later. After using them for a few days, they will begin to mold to the shape of your foot, and whoever sold them to you may be hesitant to take them back after they adopt the shape and smell of your feet.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shoes Experience Update: DDR

Last night I attempted a round of DDR while wearing my KSO's. At first, there are a number of things which take some adjusting to. Since there is basically no shoe sole, the timing of the note hits is slightly later. This is due to it taking less time to move my foot and depress the direction arrow. I'm still not sure if this makes the hit timing closer or further away from the actual beats in the music, since I was playing on a new machine. Next week, I'll try again on a machine I am well-acquainted with (the DDR X machine at 仙台駅 Taito Station).

Another change that I noticed (again, may just be machine peculiarities) is that I have to push down fairly hard on the floor buttons in order for them to register in the correct instant. If I step lightly like I normally would while wearing FiveFingers, the pad hits register late or not at all. I think this is just engineering by the pad designers to compensate for people wearing heavy shoes (and slamming the pad way too hard).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Introducing my new shoes



Near the midpoint of my vacation in America, I began to seek out a new and exquisite shoe: the Vibram FiveFingers. Unlike most shoes which help to pad your feet and dampen any vibrations from locomotion, these shoes are a far reach in the other direction. In fact, there is very little difference between these shoes and walking around barefoot, except for the protective rubber sole. Essentially it is a glorified watershoe, with a better rubber sole and articulated toes and heel (a la the toe socks of yesteryear).

Maybe I should say that more bluntly: it looks like a rubber foot. This is the aspect which probably matters the least in the functionality of the shoe, but is most noticed by anyone else. In both America and Japan (even as i'm riding back to Sendai on the Tohoku Shinkansen as I write this), total strangers and friends alike manage to work up the courage to talk to me about my shoes. The little attention whore inside of me just loves all the excitement aimed near the lower half of my body.

The more important aspect of these shoes from a functionality standpoint (pun intended) is that there is no support at all. None, nada, zilch, zero. Neither is there any padding to speak of: while wearing the shoe, I can quite readily tell apart whether i'm walking on concrete, pavement, marble, or a grooved escalator step. This is intentional, and the only thing you are paying for with this shoe is a protective glove around your foot. Things that make barefoot walking dangerous, such as metal scraps, nails, broken glass, and so on are not able to penetrate the rubber sole. Like normal shoes, stepping on a big nail or sharp rock may very well bruise your foot, but at least you won't bleed to death or get an emergency tetanus shot.

Speaking of bruising.. that is what will happen to your heel if you walk heel-toe barefoot. Accordingly, the new wearer of the FiveFingers shoe will need to adjust (and probably unlearn) their ambulating style and gait to be appropriate for barefoot walking. In general, the strategy is to use the ball of your foot as the main impact absorber, since that is how your foot is designed to work in the first place. Walking only on the balls of your feet is basically tiptoe-ing, and is not sustainable for long distances unless you have extremely well-conditioned feet/legs. For a smoother gait, I roll through with all of my toes (its much more productive when your foot is wearing a glove instead of a mitten).

Next.. how does one buy such exotic footwear?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Shipping luggage to/from the airport in Japan

UPDATE: added headers, more details on picking up at the airport, and how to find the booths

On my travels involving luggage in Japan, I am acutely reminded just how crowded the country can be (and how big the foreigners are in comparison to everyone else). It is nearly impossible to take any non-carryon luggage in the subway or highway buses, and difficult to carry more than one checked baggage on the Shinkansen. Many people utilize various delivery services which can deliver luggage directly to or from an airport.

For airport delivery, you can both send and receive your luggage at the airport.

Sending Airport to Home (or other destination)

When I fly into Narita International Airport, I eventually work my way through customs, and end up on the first floor arrivals lobby. From here, at the end of the large hallway are the booths of various delivery companies (look for signs indicating delivery companies or 荷物宅配サービス). One of the most well-known companies is Kuroneko Yamato, which has the trademark black-cat-on-yellow logo; I have used this company several times. At the booth, you fill out a little delivery form, decide what time the next day you would like your luggage delivered, hand over 1500-2000 yen per bag, and leave the airport much lighter. For much of Kanto (near Tokyo), same day deliveries are possible for luggage received in the morning; next day delivery is standard to most other areas of Japan (some parts of Hokkaido and islands like Okinawa take longer). Now you can proceed lightly to your destination!

Sending to the Airport


Shipping to the airport is a bit more involved and requires more planning, because the bags must be sent two days prior to departure. In my case, I sent my bags on a Thursday for my Monday flight. Collection is also varied; in general you can call a delivery driver to make a pick up at a specific time and place, or you can take your luggage to a store that deals with the delivery company. For Kuroneko, most Seven-Eleven stores are able to send and receive packages and luggage, along with a smattering of other (usually smaller, independent) stores and shops. The forms can be obtained from participating stores before you hand over money and send the bags, which is helpful if you know the store from which you want to send but are unsure of other details (or want some time to pick apart the kanji on the form).

On the airport end, you pick up your luggage in the departures check-in lobby of the appropriate terminal and wing. After that, you can walk across the floor to your appropriate airline check-in station, and only end up carrying all your bags at once for the 5-10 minutes it takes to traverse the huge departures lobby. Also, you can stuff anything into your bags at this time that you forgot/deferred from shipping; for example, toiletries, おみやげ (souvenirs) that you forgot, or evening out the load between checked and carryon luggage.

I have found this service invaluable, especially if you have more than one piece of luggage or are travelling to the airport by bus. Even with the roughly $16-20 per piece of luggage, it is still cheaper to take an overnight bus and pay for luggage than take the shinkansen. Even with the shinkansen, the lightened burden may make your travels more relaxed and stress-free. After a neverending day of travel and a flight covering a dozen timezones, shelling out a few bills is often a very tempting proposition. Since my flight departed at 10:45, I would be traveling through Tokyo around rush hour; the thought of swimming through the sea of commuters with 100lb of deadweight was enough motivation for me to figure out how to ship my bags to the airport.

Helpful links

Yamato Transport (Kuroneko) - Airport Takkyubin (English)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dvorak experiment update


I haven't written much lately, because I've been learning a new keyboard layout since the last post. While that alone shouldn't forbid more blog posts, my hands are tired and out of shape. I believe it is mostly related to breaking old bad typing habits, such as not touch typing properly with all fingers.



According to this morning's drill, I have gotten up to 42wpm on a full keyboard drill. I seem to be speeding up about 5wpm per week, and i'm guessing that my speed will top out around 80-90wpm. Of course, that is mostly a function of what I am typing: while programming, speeds above 30-40wpm are only useful in languages that are painful to the hands to begin with (Java, i'm looking at you..). Furthermore, while hard to quantify, my actual typing speed is a bit lower than that in the drills. The reason for this is that only a limited number of common letter combinations are included in the particular typing program I use; it is fairly light on latinates which does not bode well for anyone in academia.

Overall I think the switch to Dvorak is going well, and a lot more certain now that I can use the whole keyboard fairly proficiently. The biggest sticking points so far are Japanese input and keyboard shortcuts. I have not yet found a way to make the mac Japanese IME use the alternate layout, but this is not too big of a problem right now because I do not type much Japanese text these days (no homework..). Keyboard shortcuts are a bit bigger of a problem. I use a modified dvorak layout that reverts to querty when using the command key for shortcuts, but not all applications seem to play along with this option.

Pretty soon, nobody will be able to tell i'm using a different layout, as long as I am speedboosted by coffee.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My latest learning project: it's all in the hands

So in the past few days, I have been spending much of my idle time researching the various opportunities at graduate schools. During this perusal of various blogs and talks, I realized that the path ahead of me will invariably include many hours banging away on a keyboard. Also, I remember how my hands would get very angry at me during my semester of freshman composition. I would often spend hours at the computer, painfully typing up some horrid essay.

Surely, there are more comfortable ways to type; over the years, countless nerds (myself included) have attempted and failed to successfully adopt to more ergonomic keyboard layouts such as Dvorak. However, in today's always-on hyperactive internet culture, it is ridiculously hard to switch to an alternate keyboard layout: not only is there the improbability that all of your QWERTY-based devices can change to alternate layouts, but more importantly the initial productivity drop associated with plunging to sub-30 wpm typing speeds.

Thankfully (?) here in Japan I have a much lower typing burden than back in the USA, so I've used this weekend to stop typing the old way and conduct this experiment. Judging from the fact that this blog entry was typed up in about 15-20 minutes, I may have a rough few weeks ahead of me.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Programming-related posts have moved

I have created a new blog for programming, design, and technical posts so as not to bore the target audience of this blog. Such posts can be accessed at the new blog address:

http://mutedalarm.blogspot.com

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Gay news for the straight public

Lots of gay stuff in the news lately. The New York Times almost looks like the Advocate these days.

In Iowa (of all places!) same-sex marriage was upheld by the Supreme Court.

In Vermont, the legislature (!) voted to override (!) the governor's veto of a law legalizing same-sex marriage.

And finally, the NYT ran a story about violence against gays in Iraq, concentrating on Sadr City. I think the saddest part in this reporting is the quote below:

“Our investigation has found that these incidents are being committed by relatives of the gays — not just because of the militias,” he said. “They are killing them because it is a shame on the family.”

He said families typically refused to cooperate with the investigation or even to claim the bodies. No arrests have been made in the killings.

Meanwhile at said families' mosques, sadist clerics preach about the evils of homosexuality, and how it is destroying the fabric of society, (and wocka wocka). I'm not sure whether to be amused or alarmed that Iraqi institutions of faith have "risen" to the same level of stupidity as many homophobic denominations in the United States.

I look forward to returning to the United States and arguing with those who oppose such marriages. Slowly, their lines of reasoning and mock outrage over "activist judges" seem to be less and less effective. Perhaps the United States can be a symbol of hope for those unfortunate gays in Iraq, or at least 4/50'ths of the United States can be.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Who says static typing has to be ceremonious?

I refer you to a blog post by Ikai Lan.

When you combine pattern matching, extractors, lazy file streams, and other sugar, things can get pretty silly pretty fast :)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Types are to Python as animals are to ___

I'm thinking clouds in the sky in the above one. Which is why the following StackOverflow thread is infinitely ironic. What it really comes down to is, the type of an object in Python may or may not correspond to the method interface it implements.

When in Rome, do as the Romans. Thus, when in Python you should only care about method interfaces. If you need to know whether something is a duck and the quack isn't enough, you are doing something wrong (or expecting too much from the poor duck)!

Monday, March 30, 2009

I have been named a Goldwater Scholar!

(BULLETIN: drop your papers and coffee!)

The Goldwater Foundation finally released its list of 2009 Goldwater Scholars, and I am very honored to be on the list!

Official Press Release
2009 Scholars


As I only woke up a few hours ago, it has yet to really sink in that after more than a year and a half of applying, all of that work has finally come to fruition. From here, I am not sure what will happen; at the least, I suppose I will be recognized at the university-wide honors convocation, as well as the College of Science and Computer Science equivalents. My house representative Carl Levin is on the Goldwater committee, so I may be hearing from my congressman soon. *nervous chuckle*

A sincere thanks to all of the letter writers, advisers, admin staff, and most importantly the professors who have been patient with me in my short academic career.

(we now return to the regularly scheduled programming of paper reading)

EDIT: Posted on the homepage of CS Department. Yes I know my hair looks silly, get over it.

Making sense of the (functional) world

I stumbled across the original "Lambda the Ultimate" papers by Sussman and Steele and the effect produced from reading them is profound. It is as if someone suddenly lit a huge halogen floodlight into an enormous black cavern. :)

More seriously, several topics such as continuations, continuation-passing-style (CPS) and the compilation of functional languages make about 100 times more sense now. Hopefully I can get back on track and read what I was *supposed* to be reading before the research meeting on Wednesday..

Friday, March 27, 2009

Lack of updates

Still no word on the Goldwater application. I would have guessed that it would come by end of day Friday, but apparently not.

Expect a research post in the next week.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Awaiting awards..

I have received notification that I will be receiving an award (likely a corporate partner-sponsored scholarship) at the Purdue CS Awards Banquet in early April.

Also, by that time, I will have definitely learned my Goldwater award status.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Picking a Research Topic

(Illegible graffiti in Ura-Harajuku)

..is hard!

For the last month or so at least, I've been trying to pick out a specific topic and project. This is as part of my research in the Kobayashi-Sumii lab. Most of the reason that it is going so slow is that I am only a Junior. I spent the better part of last semester catching up to a grad-level understanding of type systems, programming languages, and paper-reading ability. Even so, there are so many topics out there that I do not yet have the slightest understanding about (effect systems, static analyses, ownership, dependent types, module systems, monads, ...).

Recently we've been trying to find some research topics that tie the Kobayashi lab's specialty (process calculi and static analysis) into mainstream languages and real-world applications. At first we looked at bringing more powerful pi calculus usages to a Java extension, but Java is not well-suited to the message-passing style that process calculi model. Furthermore, a pi calculus library for Scala has been implemented (pilib) but it seems to be a dead end due to lack of practical application.

While looking at PiLib, I found out that it is implemented entirely as a library using Scala Actors (which in turn are entirely implemented as a library). This week it occurred to me that Actors and process calculi must be related, as they are both models of concurrency. I found a few papers today that seek to show the link between Actors and Pi-calculus, so this may be a possible lead for something interesting.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Oscars awarded for Milk

The Oasis reports:

Dustin Lance Black, the young openly gay writer of Milk, won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, with Sean Penn taking the trophy home for his amazing transformation into Harvey Milk.

Good to know that i'm not biased in my selections for movie of the year. And now I can make my friends watch it without coming off as campy. If you haven't seen this movie, then by all means go to the theatre, or find it in the rental store when it comes out. It may change your perspective a bit.

Metacritic reviews: Milk

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why cellphones in the US suck


(Doc Martens store in Harajuku)


NYT: More Customers Give Up the Cellphone Contract

From the article:
The savings can be considerable. An AT&T customer with an Apple iPhone on a traditional plan pays at least $130 a month, excluding taxes and fees, for unlimited calls and Web use. Compared with the $50-a-month, all-inclusive prepaid plans, the iPhone owner pays nearly $1,000 more over the course of a year.
That's great, but you are still paying $50 a month for a (likely terrible) phone, which (likely) can't get 3G outside of a population center. iPhones are even worse: you could buy a new phone every month for the monthly cost of the contract.

The reason that cellphones suck in the US is simply, there is no real competition. Every cellular company is happy to make 1000%+ profit margin on text messages and internet access while providing terrible 3G coverage and Faustian contract bargains.

Compare to Japan: I bought my phone for ~$100, I regularly access the internet, and use the phone for calling and texting. My monthly bill has yet to exceed $30 a month. I can get 3G basically anywhere but in the subway and the elevator (some carriers such as AU have special infrastructure to retransmit signals in subway tunnels; I use Softbank which doesn't).

In the age of netbooks and free Skype, cellphone companies in the US need to stop pumping out crappy phone models, do some infrastructure building, and make contracts that do not resemble slave ownership agreements.

Fiction

(Big list of people who gave money to the temple. This is near Harajuku park in Tokyo)

In the last few days I read the book Eragon. Much like Harry Potter and Dan Brown, it is a fantasy book which draws mainly young adults and mothers into its pages and thoroughly pisses off authors and people who take books way too seriously. While it is no Tolkien, it was fun to have some guilty-pleasure reading where I could forget about the current surroundings.

Too bad there is no english language library here, or i'd probably be reading The Count of Monte Cristo right now. Although I haven't read it in years, it remains one of my favorite adventure/hero books (right beside Lord of the Rings). I wish I would have dedicated more time to reading in the States, because although I have much time to read in Japan there are few English books to be had.

Reading Japanese books is still yet frustrating to me; I can slowly grok through the pages with a dictionary close by, but it is hard to become immersed in the plot and action when you need to extricate yourself once a paragraph to look up some frivolous adjective or colloquial pattern. I always say that I do not like manga- part of the reason is that I cannot get through the pages quick enough to build any plot momentum, and then get bored.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Safflower and Snow Monsters

(Waiting in line at Zao Ropeway)

Last weekend I went on a trip to Yamagata with a bunch of other international students. It was sponsored by the Engineering school's international department, which subsidized most of the costs of the trip, so for students the end cost was only 1500 yen (around USD $15). The main focus of the trip was to visit the Safflower (紅花、べにはな)museum, and to see the snow monsters on Mt. Zao on the Yamagata prefecture side.

We rendezvous'd with the buses next to the station in downtown Sendai. With some scary black clouds off in the distance, it looked as if it might turn out to be a volatile day of weather. After two hours or so, we arrived at the first stop: the Zao Rope Way, a ski area in the Mt. Zao area.


We rode up two separate ropeways (which were more like gondolas) to the top of the mountain. One of the main attractions in this area are the so called snow monsters (樹氷、じゅひょう). They are trees that have been sprayed with moist Siberian wind and snowed on repeatedly, accumulating enough snow and ice to be completely white, unrecognizable, and spooky. On the day we went, there was a very powerful storm system that was just leaving, so we could not see anything at the top of the mountain. I'd estimate that the winds were at a constant 40-50mph, which made riding the upper gondola quite an adventure.

Apparently, the snow monsters melted overnight due to unexpected rain and heavy winds. According to the locals this has never happened before, so I guess we just got really unlucky. You can see some pictures I randomly found on this flickr set, or just by googling "yamagata snow monster".

Next, we went to Sagae for lunch. This city is the center of the cherry-growing industry in Japan, and their cherry product sells for incredibly high prices, in excess of $30/lb (why this is, I could not find out). The lunch was decent and we picked up ice cream on the way back to the bus.

Our last stop was the Safflower museum (Japanese link warning). Safflower (which at first, I believe they were saying sunflower) is a flower used for its red-pink dye, which was very important in the days of kimonos and hand-made clothing in Japan.


The museum trip was divided into two groups; my group began with the hands-on dying of a handkerchief. Similar to tie-die, we used short sticks and rubber bands beforehand to create undyed patterns in the dyed product. This took quite a long time, because the dye had to be worked into the material, be set, and then dry off.

The second part was a series of buildings belonging to an important Safflower trader who lived in the Meiji era. Except for the meeting and living rooms, all the buildings had been converted into museum space featuring safflower-dyed kimonos, dolls, as well as period artifacts and some effects of the trader's family.

Overall it was a very fun trip which got everyone out of Sendai for a day of fun while only spending relatively little money. I am very much hoping to go back for a day of skiing sometime in the next few weeks if possible, pending gear rentals and figuring out transportation.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How I use Anki, part 1

(Shot from the median of Jozenji-dori during the Pageant of Starlight in Sendai)


As some of my Japanese-studying friends know, I am a huge fan of the Anki spaced repetition software. If you are not familiar with the idea of spaced repetition software, please check out the Wikipedia page. In addition to the basic software, I also sync my deck to the free web server, and occasionally review by using my cellphone.

I started using Anki less than a year ago. Previously, I had tried using other similar software but it was not mature enough for serious use (or didn't work with Linux). At the beginning of the summer of 2008 while on my internship at Amazon, I started learning all of the Japanese kanji through the Heisig method. Anki is a big help in learning by Heisig method; the spaced repetitions keep most of your time focused on new cards and troublesome cards. Since the Heisig method relies on creating imaginative stories to remember kanji, this had the effect of refining only those stories for kanji that are difficult to remember.

Through this (and a lot of hard work!) I got through Remembering the Kanji. Near the end, I was becoming so adapted to memorizing kanji that I was learning around 40-50 new kanji meanings per day. This made my daily load stable at around 300 cards per day, which typically took at least 2-3 hours to clear (plus time to add new cards, which was almost just as time intensive. If I weren't planning to study abroad starting in October, I could have slowed down this rate to a more comfortable 20 new cards per day or so. I was also slowed down in the last month by a new relationship, but that was a tradeoff that I understood and accepted up-front.

Coming next: what do you do once you have "learned" all of the kanji?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Goldwater Update

Another pretty building in/near Roppongi mall.

A few weeks ago, I was notified that I am one of the nominees from Purdue for the Goldwater scholarship. For those who have not been following, the Goldwater scholarship is the most prestigious national undergraduate scholarship for STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) students. It was established in honor of Mr. Conservative, Sen. Barry Goldwater. Previously, I wrote about compiling my application for this scholarship.

What is the meaning of this new news? This means essentially that I move on to the next round of competition for the national scholarship. Typically, about 1200 students are nominated each year by their respective universities, and of those up to 400 receive the scholarship. In other words, I have a 1/4 chance at a nice scholarship.

Typically once one is notified of their university-level nomination, much rewriting and fretting over essays happens. Anticipating this, I set aside a good block of time to rewrite my essays from scratch if need be. I had a phone call with Assoc. Dean Sahley, the faculty in charge of the selection committee for Purdue University. I was slightly shocked to find out that there were no comments on my essays or short answer questions, so I did not need to change them at all. I must have really spent a lot of time on them the first time!

Of course, there was still work to do. Usually, students that progress this far are able get an updated transcript with the most recent semester's exam results included. Since at that point exams were still several weeks away, and Tohoku University doesn't release final grades until mid-March, I had to fill in that gap.

This was trickier than I thought: the letter has to state that I'm a student and doing well, but also look official enough that the search committee would not suspect its integrity. I tried at first to have a professor in the lab write such a letter on "official letterhead" and send it to Purdue in a PDF. Apparently "official letterhead" isn't used here, so that didn't work. We tried to get some letterhead from the administration, but they balked at the idea. Eventually I just ended up getting a 在学証明書 (certificate of enrollment) and faxing it homeward. I could have mailed it (it has various security features) but with only 3-4 days until submission, it would have not gotten there in time without an exhorbitant amount of money spent.

I'm supposed to hear the award decision sometime in March or April. On to the next application.. College of Science scholarships.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Teaching Computer Science at all costs

Somewhere in the Roppongi mall in Tokyo, looking out at the city


The Manga Guide to Databases, Mana Takahashi.

I just saw a pointer to this book over at Bruce Eckel's blog.. and i'm not sure what to think about it. Apparently it is a book with a storyline, with bits of juicy database knowledge used throughout to solve plot problems. I can barely get through mangas without left joins and replication, but this would be a whole different ballgame!

On one hand, it is good to get otherwise uninterested students reading about technical subjects. But on the other hand, how much cartooning and dumbing down do we need for people to find Computer Science digestible? To my young eyes, it just seems like a replacement for teachers that work hard for their students.

Snowed In, In Sendai

(Yes, thank you sign-maker for explaining 回転すし. Found in Asakusa, Tokyo near the subway station)


Last night, I went to Zaiki's birthday party. I don't remember many of the details, except that we rented out a bar called Zen for a nomihoudai, and then went to Ageha for (overpriced!) karaoke.

All yesterday, it was raining fairly hard for Sendai. I actually had to ride the bus to the party, with an umbrella and a waterproof parka. Eventually it slowed down by midnight, and for much of my stumble home I didn't use an umbrella at all.

...

When I finally awoke today with a moderate hangover, all was WHITE. I stumbled around for my glasses to confirm. There was a full-blown blizzard outside, with snow colliding horizontally into the dorm. By the time I went outside for dinner at 屋名亭満天 (the ramen place), there was at least 4 inches of heavy, slushy snow on the ground.

Most of the roads looked passable, at least the ones patrolled by taxis. In fact, about every 4 of 5 cars I saw out tonight were taxis, which is a bit higher than the 3 of 4 during the day in Sendai. I have three or four rants about taxis that I could put here, but I'll try to distill into maybe just one or two.

It almost made me miss Michigan and the 4 feet of snow.. until I realized that I couldn't walk to a ramen shop at 9:30PM on a Saturday in Michigan. Tradeoffs, I guess.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Say it, O B A M A

(Don't worry, the reflection pond hasn't frozen over (yet!). The holidays struck again, and brought my lovely girlfriend to Japan as well as my new lovely MacBook, among other fun.)

EDIT: I did eventually stay up till 3:30AM watching the inauguration. Totally worth the broken sleep schedule the rest of the week.

I am seriously doubting that I will be able to stream the inauguration, since it's going to be in the middle of the night Tuesday. :( But, the following video is even more trippy than the inauguration will be, so I guess i'll just watch the news on Wednesday.


Daft Punk vs. Adam Freeland - "Aer OBAMA" from Gold Greendot on Vimeo.