Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Sudden Realization While Preparing a Bowl of Cereal for Breakfast

It occurs to me that with no parental supervision in my life, I could have had ice cream for breakfast.

I could have had ice cream for breakfast for the last 6 years.

So many wasted opportunities.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cream Sherry, la primera parte

Correct me if I'm wrong, but things that you buy at the supermarket are supposed to taste good. Sure, nobody likes Brussels sprouts, but at least they are tolerable. I find chocolate to be horribly offensive (it's true), but I can understand that for 99.9% of humanity, it tastes pretty good.

Nobody told that to the geniuses behind Romate Cream Sherry, from Jerez, Spain. I like to imagine that there was a meeting held in a smokey, dimly lit conference room at Romate International Headquarters, which is also Sanchez Romate's barn. In this meeting, a secret braintrust consisting of Sanchez, his inbred cousin Raul, and Raul's favorite goat decided what to do with the family inheritance, left to the Romate cousins by Raul's father/uncle, Guillermo.

In my mind, Raul wanted to invest all of the money in the finest grapes in Spain. "People will not be able to resist our Sherry's delicious flavors," urged Raul in perfect English, mostly because I don't really speak Spanish.

Sanchez disagreed with his cousin. "Anyone can make half-decent Sherry. What will make Romate stand out from its competitors? Not its taste. Its wrapping". And so Romate International Headquarters were soon filled with sad, droopy grapes from a vineyard near an onion patch, and night and day, passers-by could hear the sounds of stomping from blister-footed grape crushers.

Sure enough, Sanchez was right. Nobody cared that the Sherry bearing Sanchez Romate's name was absolutely horrible. They were drawn to its shiny, expensive gold wrapping like moths to a bug-zapper. And thus it came to be that Aaron and Will purchased Romate Cream Sherry and brought it to the apartment.

to be continued...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Gone Clubbin'

In what may have been my last well-advised hurrah for a while, I decided to try something new. Not new like venture-beyond-two-miles-from-home, or like take-a-risk-in-any-way, this was more of a hmm-never-been-to-this-bar new.

I received an ornate invitation to a cocktail party at Perle, a club I'd never before heard of, from the Harvest Moon's well-connected manager Dario. Maybe I'm just lucky, or maybe I've spent way too much money at his bar over the past 12 months. Who cares?! I'd scored a ticket for myself and some friends to an exclusive (or so I thought) party in one of New Brunswick's hottest hot spots.
Will, Heidi, and Don
We're not sure what Will's looking at

For my entourage, I chose Will and Heidi. It was an easy decision; Heidi is a 5'10" Bavarian bombshell with a penchant for red dresses, and Will is more than metro enough to distract any homosexual gentlemen's attention.
Will's patented look is called Le Tigre

Perle was okay. It was definitely a bit too Euro-techno for my taste, although that was right up Heidi's and Will's respective alleys. There was a guy playing Latin-style drums in the corner, in sync with whatever the DJ was playing... this was weird, and made for uncomfortably loud trips to the restroom. Even weirder was the DJ's mash-up of Plain White T's Hey There Delilah. Nothing kills a party like emo-techno.

This is the sort of club that has the possibility of making New Brunswick a trendy, happening place. Like a Havana for Boston, this could be the 21st century's answer to Marlon Brando's pre-Castro getaway. If you like dancing. Which I don't.

After some drinks and some dancing, we did some walking in search of classy bars with cheap covers, cheap drinks, and minimal undergrads. Which took us back to Harvest Moon, my beloved little brewery. Then we went home, where we proceeded to make the most of our inebriation.

First of all, there was 3/4 of a bottle of Cream Sherry to polish off. This feat alone is worthy of at least 6 blog posts, but I'll restrain myself to just one in the coming days.
Cream Sherry is the devil

Hunger struck with a vengeance... after all, I'd been fasting all day, and not even the box of Zwieback toast I'd scarfed earlier that night had been sufficient. As soon as I mentioned this, Fraulein Heidi sprung into action. Sprang into action? Springed into action.

Heidi owns the kitchen

Stealing two eggs and a loaf of bread from my room, Heidi turned the kitchen into her own personal playground. She grabbed bowls, pans, utensils, and it was all we could do to stay out of her way. She was a whirlwind. Next thing I knew, I had a stack of French Toast sitting in front of me. French Toast with cinnamon. I could've cried.

Now that we were all, to some degree or other, drunk and well-fed, we settled onto the living room couch (now unofficially known as Heidi's 2nd home) and put a movie in the DVD player. The bottle of Cream Sherry was passed back and forth, generally skipping over Heidi, who was sober enough to trick Will and me into drinking more than our shares. As the credits rolled, Will and I stumbled down the hall to our bedrooms, leaving Heidi to her allegedly-comfortable couch.

Today's photos have been brought to you by Heidi's camera. This is the same camera that would've provided photos from Thursday night's Karaoke adventure, had I not accidentally deleted them all. It's not my fault! The camera is in German! Who among you can tell the difference between "alles loeschen" (delete all) and "abbrechen" (cancel)?!

Expletives and Cuss-Words

It's like they say, if you don't have anything nice to blog, don't blog anything at all.

Since I'm not too good at following such rules, I'll say this:
I am screwed. Royally screwed. Regally screwed. Monarchically screwed. Screwed in a way that traces its lineage back to Charlemagne.

You should know, though, that there is more good stuff coming. This was a wild weekend, and I've got two posts in the works based on Saturday night alone. Here's a teaser for you:

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Guide to Fasting

With Yom Kippur almost over, there seems to be no better time to write a blog post. Sure, my brain is doing the Watusi inside my skull, and I get a case of the dizzies every time I stand up. If I can't blog while dehydrated and bottoming out on blood sugar, though, what kind of blogger am I?

The fast starts in the evening, finishing 24 hours later. It's a religious ritual that has transcended spirituality and become a functional, cultural fixture - otherwise, I wouldn't do it.

There are some basics to a daylong fast that nobody tells the n00bs. It took me the better part of a decade to perfect this technique, and now I'll share it with you:

1. During the day leading up to the beginning of the fast, eat lightly. You can't really stock up on glycogen, so you're not doing yourself any favors by gorging yourself. In fact, by priming your body to expect big meals, you'd be ensuring misery the next day. It's a tradeoff - discomfort on the first evening allows relative comfort the following day.

2. Stay up as late as possible. You're less hungry on the first day than on the second, so why not allocate most of your waking hours to the easy part? This technique is not an option if you're going to religious services, but that's your cross to bear (clever, right?)

3. Ensure entertainment. I like to watch DVDs, usually comedies, to keep my mind out of my stomach. Some people use books to pass the time, but my headaches get too bad for reading.

4. Break the fast gently. I can't remember the last time I did so using anything other than Zwieback toast and tea. It might've been 1996 or so - this would make sense, because in 1997 I vomited all over my grandparents' stairs towards the end of the 24 hours.

It's almost time for me to eat again, so I'll wrap the post up now. Many of you may be wondering, "why does he do this to himself? what's the point?" I can only answer by recommending one final thing:

5. Have something to think about. Fasting on Yom Kippur is, at least for me, 1 part atonement and 3 parts self-assessment, a status check en route to personal awesomeness.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dinner Party

I am 24 years old.

From a legal standpoint, this entitles me to smoke cigarettes, to drink alcohol, and to purchase and view photographs of women's reproductive organs. I am prohibited from fornicating with anyone under 18, and I cannot rent a car (although one of these will change in a year... want to hazard a guess?).

Not everything about a 24 year old's life has been codified. There is no user's manual. Some of my friends have 401k retirement plans and hedge funds and mortgages. Others live with their parents and play loud music in college town basements.

My prom date is married and has a beautiful 12 month old baby boy. That alone is enough to give me pause.
Some of my friends are trying to grow up, to be professional even while they remain students. Mandy wrote a post about this struggle, and about the effect of homestarrunner thereon, that was remarkably illustrative.

Every year I grapple with the dilemma of where to live. Do I stay in the graduate dorms, a collection of apartment buildings that are uniform and simple enough to be classified as dorms, or do I move into an off-campus apartment, which I like to call big-boy housing. Motivated by finances, by pragmatism, and by unparalleled laziness, I am still living 30 yards from freshmen.

Now let's talk about dinner parties. Nothing screams maturity like a dinner party, except maybe liver spots and prune juice. A group of friends get together at the host's home, at a predetermined time, with a predetermined guest list.

There are no games at dinner parties. Nobody plays appetizer-pong or flip-wineglass (oh man, are you thinking what I'm thinking?) You don't pregame for dinner by eating as much as possible at home. Dinner parties are textbook indicators of adulthood.

When my friend Heidi invited me to her house for a dinner party on Saturday, I was impressed. She is still but an undergrad, and undergrads' dinners are generally mass-produced in a dining hall and then regurgitated off the front porch at a kegger.

My expectations, based entirely on sitcoms, included at least one person sporting a top-hat and monocle, droll repartee about the declining value of the yen over brandy and cigars, and possibly background music from a Victrola. I was so determined to fit in that I bought and read a New York Times that morning (apparently, there's some sort of war going on in the Middle East).

Alas, it seems that I was the first to contribute to the demise of the dinner party. While helping Heidi make doughy ham-and-cream appetizers, I had the brilliant idea of using extra dough to put Dave's name on one, just to make him feel special.
Later, Dave's appetizer was eaten by Isiah. I cried a little.

During the grand tour of Heidi's house, we noticed a lamp made of translucent salt-rock. Classy! Perhaps to demonstrate his approval of the fashion and taste of which the lamp was indicative, Dave licked the lamp, confirming that it is not only classy, but also salty.

Given that Heidi's house has a fire-pit in the back yard, and that Heidi's family is incredibly German, it was almost inevitable that the dinner party became a beer-and-sausage party. As you can imagine, dinner conversation eschewed the declining yen for an entirely innuendo-ridden analysis of sausage.

As the beer (and the foul-tasting liquor) began to affect us, it became clear that the chilly night was perfect for a rousing game of Man-Hunt. Where I'd imagined witty banter over snifters of aged spirits, we were now scrambling through the pitch-black woods.

When we finally calmed down, there was only one thing left to do that would complete this magical evening: indulge in pyromania. There was a perfectly good fire, and there were perfectly good flammable things just out of the flames' reach; leaving them separate seemed unnatural. I learned that cardboard burns brightly, plastic cups bubble noisily, and empty beer bottles can be warped into aesthetically-pleasing artwork if they're warmed just-so.

What had started off as a foray into the world of adulthood had devolved into a throwback to highschool. My white-collar friends would not approve. I'm 24 years old, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

When I got home, I wrote my all-grown-up friend Mandy the following email:

Dear Mandy,




Okay. It's time for a little self-assessment, a little reality-check. There are so many things I enjoy, so many topics I write about, that sometimes I feel like the blog is wallowing in marginalia rather than portraying an accurate representation of the enigma that is Don.

I'm a mediocre cyclist.
I'm an above-average karaoke-ist.
I'll even dare to use the word "great" to describe my blogging.
I am a _________ grad student.

The question of what adjective belongs in that last statement is one of the fundamental questions of my life.

The marginalia - cycling, karaoke, and vegetable-critiquing - are surely more fun to write about than the Biomedical Engineering. Every so often I post my thoughts on research, my own or my colleagues', and the response is universally either a yawn or a "whaaa?"... and that's not what my intention is. So I limit the Science posts.

The thing is, though, that I am not an athlete, nor an entertainer, nor a columnist - I am a professional scientist... or at least I'm in training to be one. As fun (and necessary) as these distractions are, they're just not what I am.

When I lose a race, it's no different than any other race, so no worries. When I perform poorly at karaoke, there's always next week. When I write my worst-ever blog post, it's still better than Will's best. But man oh man, when things go bad in the lab, it marks the beginning of yet another existential crisis.

Yesterday I made a breakthrough, solving a problem that's been plaguing me for weeks. I knew something was wrong with my data processing, I just couldn't figure out what. It was so confusing that it wasn't even clear what the problem was, let alone how to solve it. Like a raging case of gonorrhea, it wasn't going to go away on its own.

Suddenly, it hit me. A few tests later, I had identified the problem, and within an hour, it was solved.

"Happy" does not begin to describe my reaction to this new development. I leaped out of my chair and bounced around the lab, grinning from ear to ear. If you were online at the time, you probably received an instant message along these lines:
"oh man oh man oh man
I am the smartest man alive!!!
BIIIG breakthrough
oh yes
And so on.

You have to understand what this means; I can finally make progress again! It's unfortunate that my sense of worth is linked so closely with some numbers on a spreadsheet, but that's the life I chose. Right now, that sense of worth is sky high, and by god I'm gonna ride that wave as long as I can!

Hmmm. I'm not sure if what I've written so far does justice to the extent of my joy. Let me put it this way:

If there were two of me, I would totally make out with myself. That's how pleased I am with myself.

Narcissus ain't got shit on me!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Best of TheNinjaDon

TheNinjaDon has been up and running for 8 months now. In that time, I've posted a total of 187 posts - more, if you count my contributions to the RutgersCycling and Mandy Lozano blogs.

That's a lot of posts. Some have been good, and some have been awesome. Be warned, though: reading all of them in one sitting has been scientifically linked to strong cases of the crazies, and is not recommended.

For your convenience, a panel of experts have come up with "The Best of TheNinjaDon", a list of must-read posts to acquaint you with the literary cornucopia with whic this website is teeming. Included in the list is "Ninja's Choice", a post that I loved but that didn't quite get enough votes from the experts. It's good to be the king.

This list will also be available on the sidebar, located to the right of the page. Tell your friends.

Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you:

The Best of TheNinjaDon
  • The Brick
  • My Man-Crushes, episode 2
  • Mexico, day 1
  • Ninja's Choice
  • I am Officially Flantastic
  • Monday, September 17, 2007

    Ya Got PIRGed, part 2

    continued from part 1...

    During the brief hiatus between posts, you may have found yourself wondering, "when the frick did Don get this funny?" It turns out that I got bitten by a radioactive spider. And now you know.

    You may also have found yourself wondering, "what in the world is a PIRG?" because lord knows I didn't give you many clues in the last post. Some of my more enterprising readership may even have started to guess what PIRG might be. A tediously touchy-feely liberal arts course I was thinking of taking? Some fashionable new venereal disease?

    Be patient, sassy-britches, all shall be revealed in good time.

    We left off with Janet, the intensely-maternal cubicle-jockey at the Student Accounting Office, going over my tuition bill. After my tuition and my fellowship canceled each other out nicely, there were still a few additional charges; pesky little fees like health insurance and housing. Boooring.

    But then I saw an item I didn't recognize. PIRG. $10 per semester for the PIRG. My rapport with Janet felt solid enough for me to ask "what's P.I.R.G?", spelling the acronym out. She immediately corrected me, "Oh, honey, it's pronounced 'PIRG' [purg]".

    "Okay, but what's PIRG?"

    "Oh, it's an optional fee. It's the P.I.R.G... and it's optional. You can refuse the PIRG."

    Now, it's been well-established that I am not the most diplomatic spoon in the drawer. It just doesn't make sense to me that there isn't a 1-to-1 relationship between what is said and what actually is. Am I outing myself as an engineer, or perhaps just as a social retard? Maybe. But at least I'm aware enough to be able to fake it. I've learned that "let's go back to your place and talk" doesn't actually correlate to a conversation... except for when it does. I've learned that "is there anything else you need?" means "get the hell out of my office", and that the meaning of "maybe" is an a priori probabilistic function.

    So while I was frustrated that I was being given a recursive defintion, I was able to pull my head out of my ass long enough to realize that Janet was trying to tell me to refuse the PIRG, even though she couldn't technically advise me one way or the other.

    "Um, okay, I would like to refuse the PIRG, please, thank you." $20 a year isn't a lot - I did the math, and 20 is less than I spend on the "over" part of overtipping at the bars in two months - but dammit, it's my 20.

    When I got home, I went straight to Wikipedia, with a few detours at digg and pezcyclingnews. It turns out there's an article about PIRG! How convenient!

    So here's what I learned: In the 1970s, Ralph Nader convinced students to create groups dedicated to activism. Just about every state has one. They're funded by a bit of grant money, a bit of fundraising, and a whole hell of a lot of tuition money. With a very few exceptions, if you're in college, then your money is going to them. Which makes sense, because you're in college, and so your values and politics must align with that of the PIRG... if they don't then you're some sort of heartless aberration and you should be ashamed.

    I don't want to get into the differences between my leanings and those of the PIRGs. Mostly because if this blog starts being political, I'm going to have to stab myself with sharp things.

    I'll say this: I like the idea of giving people a voice, of pushing students to engage in civic activity. I can dig that... not my scene, but I can dig it (what the hell, why am I speaking in jive?)

    Still, the idea of money being siphoned out of our pockets without our express consent is really upsetting. You'd think we could have the option to fund PIRGs, not the option to not fund them. What a scam! And apparently, some schools don't give their students the right to refuse payment.

    The idea that universities can be a little left-leaning is nothing new. It's the fact that I'm being fleeced that really gets to me.

    As for my plans for my new friend Andrew Jackson, he's going straight into my burrito fund.

    Friday, September 14, 2007

    Ya Got PIRGed, part 1

    I try to keep things fresh here at TheNinjaDon. No matter how good an idea may be, nobody wants to see it rehashed, over and over and over again. Truly, there is nothing sadder than watching accomplished writers thrashing away at the keyboard, trying to squeeze the last breaths out of a stale, dying joke.

    It was with great reluctance that I contemplated posting about the University bureaucracy, almost as great as the reluctance that I had going into the whole ordeal. The tuition needed to be paid, though, and so I ventured back into the belly of the beast.

    First, I had to choose between the incredibly long line in the Student Finances Office and the noticeably shorter line in the Student Accounting Office. What the crap is the difference between Finances and Accounting? For the love of god, don't answer that.

    Obviously, I chose the shorter line. The shorter, slower line. As I waited, and waited, and waited for my turn, I promised myself that if it turned out that I'd chosen incorrectly, I wouldn't scream. Nobody likes a lunatic.

    The smiling, matronly woman who walked me back to her cubicle was as amused by my sense of humor as I am, and she was more than pleased to tell me about her children when I asked about the photo on her wall. (Now, I am as surprised by this as you are; I'm an engineer, not a "people person", and it's well-established that I hate pretty much everyone who isn't me)

    Perhaps it was because of this instant camaraderie that my new friend Janet decided to warn me about PIRG.

    to be continued...

    Thursday, September 13, 2007

    Lettuce the Menace

    While wondering what to post today, I came up with a few really bad ideas... a comparison of Battlestar Galactica (1978) with Battlestar Galactica (2003), an analysis of my recent training, and an essay on the ins and outs of successful relationships were just a few of the imaginative embryos I mentally aborted. Then, during an otherwise uneventful lunch, and I realized that it is time for me to warn you about your impending doom.

    Friends, I'm here today to tell you about a common threat. It's trouble, with a capital T, and that rhymes with L, and that stands for Lettuce.

    Anyone can be affected, at any time, in any sandwich. No salad is safe.

    I've always been apathetic to lettuce. It just sat idly on my burgers, making a mess when it fell out in shreds. Over time I grew to hate the lettuce, that lazy vegetable that dared compete with lunchmeat and cheese for my favor. That's when I started looking into the conspiracy theories... and then I found the Truth.

    Most people don't want to listen to my warning. Maybe they fear the truth, maybe they won't admit that they've allowed something so insidious into their homes.

    Just ask yourself, though: What does lettuce even do? You might as well eat solid water. It's no more useful than the parsley some French guy decided would pretty-up a dish of frogs' legs.

    Lettuce is the umbrella in your Baybreeze, the rear-spoiler on your Honda Accord. Lettuce is as vestigial as your tailbone, as necessary as your appendix.

    Like your appendix, it's lying in wait, a trap ready to be sprung. Instead of tissue inflammation, though, the lettuce is planning something much worse...

    Imagine, if you will, a world where mankind is not the dominant species, but is kept alive only to serve their new masters, lettuce. Sound eerily familiar? It has already been predicted, in a "movie" starring an "actor" that some suspect is actually a vegetable infiltrator.

    Some of you may be thinking "oh, Don, don't be silly. Lettuce can't rebel, they don't have the cognitive capacity to organize! They're just not smart!" To you I say: shut up, losers. Don't be fooled by Keanu. They're not called heads of lettuce for nothing.

    I, for one, will not sit idly by while humanity is overthrown by leafy greens. I'm boycotting Romaine. Never again shall Iceberg touch my bread.

    No good American would eat lettuce, anyway, not firefighters or baseball players or astronauts. I'll tell you who would, though. Bad Americans. Vegans, and communists, and vampires. Hippie Romanians, basically. The horror...

    Consider yourselves warned.

    Tuesday, September 11, 2007


    Somewhat spontaneously, tonight was declared "Apartment Cleanup Night". Also known as 3.5 hours of suffering. Aaron and Brian took the kitchen, with a little help from yours truly during the marathon floor-scrubbing relay.

    Aaron is scrubbing. Sorry, ladies, he's off the market.

    Will and I chose to battle the bathroom. This is a bit like saying that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Jesse 'The Body' Ventura chose to fight an invisible alien. In fact, in both cases, the human protagonists were so badly outgunned that they were happy to earn a draw.

    I'm not one to dramatize the inane, but in this case I think it's fair to say that Will and I suffered worse than any two men have suffered in the course of human history. We can't even claim victory over the bathroom... we fought to a draw.

    Here's the thing... It's not that we're slobs, certainly not moreso than the average 20-something male. We haven't been negligent, and the bathroom was nowhere near catastrophic. It's just that while we've only been living here a year, there have never been any University incentives to keep the dozens of previous occupants from leaving an ever-growing mess.

    So tonight, on a whim, we ventured far beyond our usual toilet-brush and Swiffer habits and cleaned. Will attacked the grime in the closet area, and I went spelunking behind and below the toilet.

    When cyclists talk about the Pain Cave, they are referring to the area behind and below my toilet. I've seen things, man. I've seen things that can't be unseen. The horror.

    While I was wrist-deep in bleach and residue of unknown origin, Will was chipping away at a substance whose history was beyond speculation. We didn't even want to think about it. Somewhere between the topsoil and the Mesozoic crust, Will announced "I think I found dinosaur pubes".

    Um, you maybe shouldn't have read this post if you're eating.

    Between the late-summer heat, the acrid fumes, and the contents of dozens of filthy Clorox wipes, it was a true test of grit not to puke. Besides, having just cleaned the bathroom, it would have been a shame to ruin my handiwork.

    Along those lines, be warned: the next person who tracks dirt into the apartment will be shot on sight. The next person who uses, breathes near, or thinks about thinking about the toilet will be subjected to some sort of torture, most likely a looped mp3 of Celine Dion... and then shot.

    I'll tell you what, tasks like this really put the fear of God in a sinner like me. If there is a hell, it certainly looks like this:
    My Battlefield, circa minute 40 of 120

    Friday, September 07, 2007

    So You Want to Join Rutgers Cycling

    We had our first team meeting on Wednesday. Approximately 20% of the Western Hemisphere was in attendance. There were more new riders than returning riders... and our team was already bigger than ever.

    Will, attempting to photograph the meeting, failed. This was his best effort to get everyone in the same shot:
    Yes, this is a good thing. The team's size is spiraling out of control, but it's spiraling in the general direction of awesomeness.

    Still, I feel that I should inform all of my new teammates that you're in for more than you may realize.

    I understand why you joined the team. Who can blame you? There is an undeniable glamor in associating with Rutgers Cycling.
    And who doesn't like winning?

    As a team member, you'll travel throughout the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference, seeing sights that you don't ever get to see in Central Jersey.

    Most importantly, you'll be part of a well-oiled machine, a veritable juggernaut of teamwork and go-fast-itude.
    However, I simply must warn you that beneath this sexy scarlet spandex surface lies a murky history of hard-work and suffering and also more spandex.

    First of all, I hope you like mud. I don't mean "oops, I got some road grime on my white shoe-covers" mud. I mean mud.

    You'll find that 90% of going fast is training (the other 10% is coordinating your jersey, shorts, handlebar tape, and cable caps). And training means staring at mens' asses for hours at a time. For example, Jenks' ass.However, recovery is the most important part of training and racing. The best way to recover is to sleep. Sleep whenever you can. Sleep, but know that you're running the risk of amusing your teammates, and therefore the entire blogosphere.
    Once you're old enough to drink, you'll be all but required to participate in our weekly Karaoke excursions. I just hope you'll have enough style to keep up.
    In fact, style will be an important part of your life as a Rutgers Cyclist.
    You'll need style in your post-race street-clothes...
    ...almost as much as you'll need to be stylish in your uniform.

    Welcome to the team.

    Wednesday, September 05, 2007

    My eyes are 60% more sparkly than yours

    During the TA Training Day of Doom, I got to spend an hour or so learning that Engineers and Scientists think differently than Historians and Artists. Not how they think differently, mind you. Just that there are differences. I will never get that hour of my life back, nor will I get back the hour I spent listening to April O'Neil talk about ponies back in the 7th grade.

    Okay, I made that last part up. You can tell because April O'Neil is the reporter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

    So, yeah, AngryMark (the English student) and I tend to think differently, while SpikyHairWill (the Biomedical Engineer) and I are frighteningly like-minded. This is no surprise. It does, however, provide an opportunity for musing about otherwise boring television shows.

    The best two shows to demonstrate my point are Top Chef and America's Next Top Model. I don't love either, nor do I hate them. Top Model, however, has proven to be more likely to set me on edge.

    Every time Tyra Banks or one of her Merry Men (think about it) provide feedback to the models, my blood pressure goes up a few millimeters of mercury... or Pascals, if you're feeling particularly Euro (we will also accept psi and bars). "Let your soul bubble through your smile". "Your pose needs more attitude". "Your eyes could look a little more sparkly".

    How the hell are these models supposed to implement this advice? How do you you make your eyes more sparkly, short of putting glitter on the cornea? These poor girls. I can't imagine making any sense of the criticism on my best day, and these chicks haven't eaten in a decade. You know what makes my soul bubbly? Sandwiches.

    Now let's look at Top Chef. The feedback to the chefs is similar on the surface to that of Top Model - the chicken was too tough, the soup was too cold, the pasta needed more butter. You know what all this feedback has in common? IT MAKES SENSE. Chicken that is too tough needs to be cooked for less time. Soup that is too cold needs to have a heat source applied to it. To add more butter to pasta, a chef must add butter.

    In other words, Top Chef's feedback is quantitative. More material. Less time. These are measurable, palpable quantities. Even when the language is qualitative, like tough, it can be deconstructed into a quantifiable change.

    On the other hand, Top Model is completely qualitative. The things they say are so arbitrary, so subjective, that one has to turn their brain entirely off just to watch an episode. It's so infuriating... if it wasn't a show about beautiful, scantily-clad women, I'd never watch it at all.

    Response to an Article from Digg

    Are Men Threatened by Funny Women?


    Tuesday, September 04, 2007

    You win this round, bureaucracy

    Since I live in Graduate Housing, my parking permit is handled by the university... or, rather, the University. Let me awkwardly explain why that is funny: a university is an institution of higher learning, but a University is an ungainly beast of a bureaucracy that occasionally secretes learning as a steaming pile of byproduct.

    When your landlord is a nameless, faceless office, simple requests like "please let me park in my parking lot" or "please stop the flooding in Will's closet" turn into bushwhacking expeditions into the dense red-tape undergrowth. Today's task was to get a new parking permit.

    I went in expecting the worst of the experience. The Parking office was recently relocated from the College Ave campus (a block away from the main Student Center, easily accessible by bus, car, or bicycle) to a new building in the middle of the bad part of town. There is no parking lot, there are no nearby bus stops, and traffic is horrendous.

    Perhaps the most telling feature of this new setup is the configuration of the Parking office's building. One of the following two scenarios must have occurred: the architects were instructed by the University to design as counterintuitive an entrance as possible, or the architects and the University are grossly incompetent. In either case, the entrance is tucked away in a well-hidden nook, and all the doors facing the street are emergency exits.

    Clearly, inefficiency was the order of the day. I brought the necessary paperwork for proving my association with and fealty to the University, and I brought a paperback book to help kill time in line. It took me 5 minutes to find parking near the building, and another 3 minutes to reach the office, all of which would be a drop in the bucket of wasted time as far as I could tell.

    I stood in line. I handed the clerk my paperwork. I received a temporary parking pass and instructions on how to complete the process online at my leisure.

    Total elapsed time, 105 seconds.

    Goddamnit, University. I was ready for you this time, and my bitchy blog post was 75% drafted already. Then you have to throw me a curve-ball by actually being efficient, friendly, and convenient. What the hell, man?

    Epilogue: For the comic adventures of a man fighting the insurmountable obstacles posed by the world's largest bureaucracy, please read GI Mark.

    Monday, September 03, 2007

    Gedanken Experiment - The Royal Wii

    Last nigt, Wii played Nintendo Wii. Wii played Wii until the Wii hours of the morning. Wii paused only when one of us had to Wii.

    No more puns. I promise.

    Oh, and for those of you who read this blog looking for hilarity rather than science, I'm afraid that today's post is going to be somewhat deeper than what I'd previously intended to contemplate: How could Miss Congeniality have a sequel when the first movie wrapped things up so tidily?

    So. The AngryMark, the Jenksicus, the SpikyHairWill, and the I got together at Jenks' apartment, where we played Wii on Jenks' giant flatscreen TV. Sidebar: it must be nice to have a job.

    The game was Red Steel. It works like this: Run around and throw grenades at / shoot each other. Pretty standard stuff, really, for my generation. Nothing says 20-something-year-old friendship like a grenade to the face.

    For those who haven't played Wii because they don't have wealthy friends off of whom to mooch (the word "mooch" just doesn't work with proper English), the controllers are a quantum leap away from tradition. Rather than adjust your orientation using one of two joysticks on the controller, it is the orientation of the controller itself that determines your aim. It is a remarkably simple control scheme, in essence the equivalent of the Duck Hunt controller, if the Duck Hunt controller had one extra degree of freedom, 3 more buttons, a digital joystick, and triorthogonal accelerometry. And if you could attach a second joystick/accelerometer/button combo controller for the left hand to use.
    Pay no attention to the ridiculous tan line

    This sounds really complicated, but in reality once you're playing the game, it's very intuitive. Your left hand controls your legs, and your right hand aims the gun. Other functions are so secondary as to be negligible until you've developed some fluency.

    Watch your feet, kids, 'cause I'm about to drop some knowledge.

    Whether they intended to or not, the developers at Nintendo did a brilliant job with this controller. It's logical enough to design a control scheme based on real-life tasks like aiming. However, the ancillary control, like with the left-hand's controller (aka'ed as the Nunchuk), couldn't have been nearly as obvious. Yet the results are almost perfectly in line with human neurophysiology.

    Consider the task of reaching. You see a target, you reach the arm for that target, you come reasonably close to that target. There will be some small but measurable error, and the nature of that error is very telling. The Kinesiology Lab at Penn State published a paper about this sort of thing.

    They found that the left hand and the right hand make different types of errors, even though their magnitudes are pretty much the same. Specifically, your right hand's error will be in the trajectory and final position, and your left hand's error will be in the velocity and timing - implying that your right hand is better at velocity, and your left is better at position.

    This makes sense... you thread the needle by holding the needle steady in the left hand and moving the thread with the right hand.

    So when it comes to controlling the act of shooting your friend with a shotgun on the patio of some anonymous restaurant, you want your left hand performing a steady-state task, and you want your right hand performing the dynamic task. Well done, Nintendo.
    Will and Charlie demonstrate

    With this Neurophysiology-Wii relationship in mind, there are a lot more experiments that could be designed to tease out control-related schema from otherwise convoluted tasks. For example, what if we gave the Right-hand controller to one person and the Left-hand controller to another? How difficult will it be for them to perform tasks, to coordinate, to strafe and progress and look around. There are so many ways to combine tasks, quantifiable performance measures, control conditions, and so on... someone please give me a grant with which to buy a few Wiis and some lab space. Please.

    I'm certainly not the first person to think about this sort of thing. The advent of virtual reality has raised a lot of questions about interaction in a virtual environment. For example, SCIENCE!!! I'm just probably the first person to propose it for completely selfish reasons. Please buy me a Wii, NIH.
    Jenks and Will each take a controller

    What if we give them two simultaneous coordination tasks?