Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Picking a Research Topic

(Illegible graffiti in Ura-Harajuku) 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.


(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.