Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Covered bicycle parking at Purdue University's West Lafayette campus

Purdue has very little biking culture. Thus, the poor state of affairs when it comes to bike lanes and bike racks is not surprising. Bike lanes deserve their own post entirely, because there are so many ways that they could be improved.

It seems that the vast, vast majority of bikes on campus were bought during freshman year by mommy and daddy at WalMart, and have never been serviced since. Rusted-out bikes are common, and the relevant groundskeeping/police people only remove abandoned bikes twice per year (at the end of Autumn and Spring semesters). Also, there does not seem to be any coherent approach to bike racks: some are long racks, some are upside-down U's cemented into the ground, and there are a few truly eccentric bike racks in the older parts of campus.

By far the biggest gripe that I had was the lack of covered bike parking, especially outside of residence halls. For those poor souls in Owen, Tarkington, and other dorms without elevators, it is not even possible to bring your bike into your tiny room. Even in halls with elevators, there is no place to securely store your bike besides your room. Without covered parking, bikes both cheap and expensive will quickly deteriorate and become unusable without a new chain and other parts. Since replacing such parts on a Walmart bike is not usually possible, these bikes are abandoned, taking valuable space in heavily used locations (like dining courts, lecture halls, and dorms).

In my four years at Purdue, I have only come to discover a few places where one can reliably park their bike at a bike rack with shelter from the elements. If anyone knows of more, please let me know and I'll add it to this list. I do not spend much time in dorm-land or Engineering parts of campus, so it is likely that I have forgotten a few places.

  1. Beneath the elevated building spanning Wetherill and Brown. There are at least four bike racks, but they can be crowded at times. Similar to the Math building breezeway, rain/snow can fairly easily blow through and still get bikes wet.
  2. In the Hawkins Hall underground parking ramp. Just to the right upon going down the entrance, there are two bike racks that are a decent distance away from the outside of the garage. This place seems popular with old commuters (saw lots of bikes with 2+ panniers).
  3. There is some marginal covered parking for bikes in front of Krannert. There is an overhang about 8-10 feet up in the air and some load-bearing pillars. Amongst this are some bike racks. A bike parked there would probably get wet with much wind, though. Another minus is it's proximity to the campus bars; left for too many nights, it would be a likely victim of drunken destruction.
It would be an easy fix to add more covered parking near campus: simply remove a few parking spaces in each of the parking garages, and add modern bike racks. While this would remove about a thousand dollars a year in A parking revenue, I'm sure that the cost of removing and disposing of hundreds of bike frames and kicked-in wheels. Simple awnings are inexpensive, and can be used at several existing large bike rack areas without making the landscape substantially uglier. I'd much rather see awnings than rusted, abandoned bikes.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Slowly improving my ergonomic-ness

One of my coworkers in the lab recently decided to start back up on his piano-playing. Naturally, I was jealous (why did I never learn to play piano?). However, within a week he came into the lab bearing wrist braces and a grimace. Between learning Chopin and coding for 8+ hours a day on a 13" MacBook, all of the finger work finally did him in. He was unable to bend his wrists at all while wearing the braces, so he had to buy an ergonomic keyboard that doesn't require bending of the wrists.

I have always been slightly curious about exotic keyboard layouts and ergonomic ways of working, starting with my learning of Dvorak layout last year and continuing when I saw several people at UW with fancy Kinesis keyboards. Since that visit I have been debating whether or not I need to worry about ergonomics, and if I do, what to do to alleviate this worrying.

For starters, I have tried various different ways of using my MacBook. Despite being the midsize model (15"), it is very hard on your wrists to use the cramped keyboard for extended periods of time. This is compounded by the abundance of chairs and tables on Purdue's campus that make good posture difficult or impossible. The first experiment was to try sitting up straight. This only is comfortable in a small number of chairs on campus, so my tried an entirely different approach to typing posture: standing up while typing. This is also hard on campus because most tables are quite short. This has only worked at home, where my dinner table is designed for high chairs.

The next step, one which I am currently in, is experimenting with keyboard and monitor height. My other main gripe about laptops (besides cramped keyboards) is that they force you to look downwards at the screen. This makes it very difficult to maintain a good posture while typing, since your neck is bent forward and head downward. My first attempt at fixing this is to buy a somewhat cheap ergonomic keyboard (the bog-standard, entry-level Microsoft ergo keyboard). With this, I can adjust the height of they keyboard and the laptop screen independently. It will take me a few days to get used to using an external keyboard again, as I never use a mouse these days.

I'm wondering what the long-term, optimal configuration will be. This is important to consider before I spend a lot of money on other equipment, and before I start graduate school and set up my student office. Does the split keyboard/screen necessitate having a desktop for long-term work and a laptop for short-term work? Is it worth it to have ergonomic setups at both work and home? It's fully possible to drive two external monitors with my MacBook Pro's video card, but all of the setup and takedown is a barrier to starting work easily. At the same time, I don't know if i'll be able to get a nice monitor and a decent Mac Pro or iMac in the graduate student offices.

I suppose time will tell. In the meantime, i'm going to continue improving my standing-while-typing posture, and hope that someday down the road I will not have to deal with the occupational hazards of hacker/programmer (as my poor coworker must deal with now).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A new way to handle email

For the past four years, every day has brought a stream of emails to my inbox. Some days, this stream resembles a trickle (such as on break, or on the weekend). On the weekdays, it often approximates a torrent. My strategies for diverting and handling this torrent of obligations, requests, and information has changed every so often. My goals in these incremental changes of process are to 1) minimize the time needed to find past emails 2) minimize the mental overhead of keeping track of the status of emails, and 3) minimize the time needed to maintain the system to make 1) and 2) possible.

In the past, I had a low volume of email to deal with, so I had a boring method of handling email: upon new mail arriving, I either replied to it or left it alone. After a few days or weeks, I would get tired of scrolling through my inbox. Some of the emails could be easily deleted or archived in a folder, but there were always some emails that were not yet "done". Perhaps they merited a long and thoughtful response that was yet short and ill-conceived; perhaps they gave details of an upcoming event. The easiest thing to do was to use the inbox as a holding pen until these messages became 'resolved'. This strategy worked well until senior year, when I became wrapped up into so many different events, ideas, and mailing lists that my inbox would still be at 30 messages full after being "cleaned".

I've decided to use this new approach, called the Trusted Trio.

Basically, you segment your email into three categories which explicitly model the lifecycle of an email. I'll call these categories "TODO", "In Progress", and "Archive". The first category is for emails that can't be responded to in a minute or two and need more time to be dealt with. This includes emails requiring long responses, some (external of the mailbox) action, or otherwise require me to do something.

The second category, In Progress, contains messages that require a later follow-up, pertain to a future event, or are no longer TODO but not quite dead yet. If you were to have an exchange with someone to set up a lunch, and were awaiting a reply of their preferred times, the entire thread would go into "In Progress".

The final category is for emails that are done, dead, or most likely no longer alive. Depending on the email client, you can organize this however you like: with a tagging-based email client (i.e. GMail), adding subject tags is a sufficient amount of organization. I use Mail.app and MobileMe right now, so I use folders based on what part of my life the email pertains to. The current subfolders include Research, Personal, Shopping, Class.

My main problem with this new approach is that it gets messy with several different email accounts. Right now I have a half-dozen emails and many more redirection addresses (such as @mac.com, @acm.org, and so on). It is difficult for me to funnel all of these into a single IMAP email account, especially when i'm not in front of my laptop. Hopefully when I start at UW, most of my emails will slowly come by just one or two accounts.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Concert Review: Miguel Zenón's Esta Plena

NOTE: this review was written as part of MUS 378 Jazz History, taught by Don Seybold.

Miguel Zenón’s Esta Plena. To me, it sounds like the name of a Spanish ballet. I have listened to music from Cuba, Mexico, South America, but plena is none of these: it is the traditional music of Puerto Rico. Still, knowing just this did not meaningfully inform my expectations of the concert. I discerned it was something unfamiliar and different, on account of the unusual number of young people packed into the ground floor of Loeb Playhouse. My seat was towards the rear, and behind me were perhaps a half-dozen young Puerto Ricans. To my left and right were more college students. There was a buzz in the air. It induced students to text and tweet at a furious pace, which added yet more energy and tension with every character pecked.

After the obligatory Todd Wetzel introduction, the band quickly deployed to their instruments and began playing without hesitation or introduction. Hans Glawischnig, the bass player, set up a boisterous Latin beat that enunciated the frenetic energy buzzing in the hall. The six seated behind me possessed the voices of a dozen, whooping, yelling, and otherwise emulating the soundtrack of a dance party in Spanish. As the theme of the first song was repeated, the younger subset of the audience met the beat with a steady clap. This was my favorite style played during the night: raucous, fast, and a distinctly “concert” sound (as opposed to upper-case Concert).

The concert’s theme was an exploration of plena – a music influenced by Spanish and African musical traditions. The main instigators of this sound were the three plenera (hand drums) of various sizes and their players: Héctor Matos (requinto, the smallest drum), Obanilú Allende (vocals and segundo, the middle drum), and Juan Gutiérrez (seguidor, the largest drum). The ensemble providing a jazz counterpoint to this trio consisted of Miguel Zenón (Alto Saxophone), Hans (bass), Luis Perdomo (piano), and Henry Cole (drums).

Merging plena and jazz is a nice idea in theory (on this basis Zenón was awarded Guggenheim and MacArthur grants), but it is a very ephemeral and fleeting moment in practice. On some of the numbers, the two styles were intermixed; others were more theme-oriented, with some themes played by the plenera and some by the piano or saxophone. The height of the concert was the long drum solo that traded attacks with the plenera, yet mostly sidestepped reusing tedious drum solo clichés. The main problem I sensed was that the drum rhythms are fixed and the folkloric quality of the music is much more structured than the floating-in-space harmonic aesthetic I often imagine while listening to modern jazz.

Regardless of the style, all performers were drenched in energy, whether improvising a solo or beating the living crap out of their hand drums in hard-to-imitate polyrhythms. Not since I saw Thom Yorke of Radiohead live have I seen a band’s frontman dance so wildly and without restraint while singing and playing. Miguel’s solos are plain as day to understand: just watch his body wobble about the stage, and match the motions and emotions to the movement in the music. The band’s energy was infectious, and throughout the concert it provoked yelling, clapping, and other concert-worthy (lowercase-c concert) forms of participation.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the audience was interested “experiencing” the groove, so most members just sat calmly (as if watching a YouTube video, or in a master’s clinic). Part of this is Purdue’s concert culture: when most of the concerts are sponsored by the local retirement home megacomplex, you shouldn’t expect many people to dance in the aisles. I would have much rather seen Zenón’s septet in a club with a dance floor, as plena music (and Latin-sounding beats in general) are undeniably designed to induce dancing.

To balance out the plena, several more typical jazz songs were also presented. The most pleasing segments of these were the improvisations of the piano and saxophone. None of these songs were terribly memorable for me, and I felt that they bored the P.R. audience as much as the plenera-wielding musicians who didn’t have a single note in some pieces. One exception was a ballad piece, which was quite haunting. It began with a simple riff by Hans on bass, and slowly added in complexity. With each new chorus, Miguel dug just a bit deeper into the theme, and by the climax was dancing passionately with his horn. It reminded me instantly of Bolero – but translated into the context of a jazz ballad. Rarely have I felt more compelled to stand up and clap after the final bars.

The concert was a blast. I’m looking forward to new works by Zenón, and am especially interested to see if he can further integrate plena tradition into the improvisations of jazz.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Quick tip: disabling iPhoto sync

I've always wondered why iPhoto always opens when I plug in my iPhone. It seems counterintuitive, considering Apple's obsession with minimizing options and optimizing for the common case. Chances are high that I don't want to import any photos from my phone when the battery is low, there are no new pictures, or it is way past my bedtime. If I wanted to import photos, I would open iPhoto myself! This has led to constant frustration and interruption of my flow.

It turns out that there is a setting which induces this behavior. It's tucked away into a small application called Image Capture.app. This application is ostensibly some sort of image importing application, but i've never seen it before. Among other things, it allows you to change the action to be performed when a "camera" device is plugged in. The setting is per-device, and you can opt to use any application (or no application). In theory you can even write your own complicated program to decide when to import, but for me the options iPhoto.app and "No Application" are sufficient.

(Note: this is on Snow Leopard. If you don't have Snow Leopard, YMMV)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Facebook Vacation

As has become customary this year, I'm going on a Facebook vacation for a month or so. This will last until the school year is done.

The point of this is twofold: increased productivity, and a test of willpower. While many people argue to the contrary, Facebook, Twitter, video games, and television are all addictive to some extent, depending on the person. As a test, I stopped using Facebook for a month last semester (November-December) to see if I was a Facebook-addict. Turns out, it was a lot harder to not use it than I thought, but I also became a lot more productive than I had ever imagined (we even submitted a paper that got published!). I concluded that I had been addicted, and since that month of going completely without Facebook, I realized that I was just as happy and had a lot more time. Since then I have made it a goal to limit my use of the service. Unfortunately, that goal has slowly slipped away; traveling for a whole month, while exciting, does horrible things to your productivity and focus.

This time around, I have just as many, if not more, demands on my time. It is harder logistically to go to the library after dinner because I live in Lafayette. I have class all day Tuesday/Thursday, with two 90 minute breaks interspersed. While it is tempting to waste those breaks on Facebook or Google Reader, I can no longer afford to throw away that time. In a little over a month, I will have my final exam, and my Programming Languages project (which is already behind) will be due. Not to mention, I have tens of other things to worry about (research, moving, summer jobs, research, and weekend trips).

I will continue to blog sporadically, perhaps at the same rate I have been in March. Surprisingly, writing a blog post and creating new content is much more interesting than reading about friend's awesome night out drinking, or seeing the latest dumb youtube clip. It also doesn't take as much time, either.

UPDATE: I've decided to keep on using Twitter, because it is much less likely to consume large amounts of my time. That said, I'm trying out a new approach to reading news and Twitter: work first, then relax. I'll only use Twitter after i've already done some work, and refrain from sending tweets during my working periods. I already try to use a similar strategy for email and IM, and it seems to work pretty well. At least, when I don't get urgent emails :).