Thursday, December 08, 2011

el viento

the patagonian weather has been fickle.  dense, intimidating clouds blanket the sky, pregnant with rain.  we dart down highways and dusty roads hoping for openings in the clouds, where a few rays of fleeting sun warm our wind chapped skin and dry our rain soaked clothes.

in the metal and glass enclosure of modern cars, rain is something of a curiosity of nature.  climate controlled air and warmed leather seats shuttle comforted passengers through inclement weather with barely any notice, minus perhaps the constant swishing of rain activated windshield wipers.  drivers lose themselves in the stereo surround sound of a 6 CD changer, oblivious to the texture of the road, and the scent of the country.

on a motorcycle, riders are exposed.  loose packing of the gravel makes itself known as your rear wheel slips out of your control.  the dust kicked up by the vehicles in front of you accumulates on your helmet windshield.  you smell the horses before you see them.  when you ride into the rain, your torso, the bike's gas tank, and your legs conspire to create a natural funnel, unceremoniously directing all the water and wind towards your crotch.  there is nothing romantic about riding around with a cold and wet crotch.

the most aggressive trait of patagonian weather is not the rain, but the winds.  in the nominal state of windless affairs, riding a motorbike at high speeds is like dragging your hand through a pool of water.  though still and less viscous than liquid, you are displacing significant amounts of air as you fly down the highway.  the static air that you impel around you has a characteristic howl that becomes more fierce the faster you move.  it's loud, but it's predictable.

in the large expanses of patagonian highway, the winds demand your focus.  sudden and randomly directed wind gusts will pull you off your line, forcing you to hold a 10 degree lean just to maintain a straight heading.  narrow highway lanes, strong opposing winds, and the invisible wakes of oncoming trucks  will create bow shocks that literally knock you off your seat.   

riding around a bike in these winds is not comfortable and it's not safe.  but really exploring patagonia means getting to know the winds.  

donde esta la biblioteca

people often imagine i have skills or abilities of which i am sorely lacking.  i try not to correct them, as i prefer not to expose the full extent of my ignorance.  for example, knowing that i paddle on a dragonboat on weekends, one might reasonably deduce that i can swim.  this is definitely not the case.

for the past week, i've been roaming around spanish speaking countries.  i have an angeleno's understanding of spanish, which means that i can watch soccer on television and i can order a cow tongue taco at a mexican restaurant.  i do have a couple years of high school spanish though, so this provides me with a false sense of fluency.  in addition, my spanish sounding last name and fast talking ny'er nature emboldens me to engage deep conversations with locals where i am poorly equipped.

so far, with my extensive spanish vocabulary, in each of the locations i've visited, i have an expert's knowledge of:
  • the location of the local library
  • the color of the local library
  • the location of the bathroom in the local library
  • the spanish speaker's favorite book in the local library

the most interesting conversation i've had so far was with a security guard at a hotel construction site in ushuaia (another story about the hike later...).   with his limited understanding of english and our limited understanding of spanish, the conversation pretty much degraded into a form of universal sign language with wild gesturing and loud talking, which, if viewed from afar, might reasonably be mistaken for italian.

for a keepsake, he gave me a bullet on a keyring, and told me (if my spanish serves me correctly) "for my recording needs".  i'm forced to assume that argentinians have strange customs with respect to firearms and recording contracts, much like contemporary american country and gangsta rap music.

we got into a discussion of where we're from and i've since learned that if someone asks me "where i'm from", what they really mean is "where are your parents from?".  on the trip so far, the locals and fellow tourists have greeted me with ni-hao, konnichiwa, and an young ha seh yo.  an appropriate response from me would probably be: "hello, have some cawfee!".  anyway, one of the riders on the trip is from south africa.  upon hearing this, the security guard asked: "if you are from africa, why are you white?".  i could have used my spanish language fluency to discuss the subtleties of international politics and european colonialism, but there were libraries left to visit.

Friday, August 28, 2009

adventures in poor clothing design part II

i've never been all that fashion concious. a couple years into college, i hadn't heard of abercrombie and fitch, and i asked my friend yaqub what it was. he told me "abercrombie and fitch is where white people buy expensive clothes to make themselves look poor."

not as a matter of fashion, or as matter of socioeconomic camoflauge, but as a matter of necessity, i've been wearing a lot of distressed style clothing. one reason is that i walk 3 miles to work on the beach and another reason is i hate ironing clothes. for whatever reason these wrinkled and disheveled looking clothes seem in.

i seem to have some unfortunate luck regarding cargo shorts though. article of evidence #1 below, my first pair of cargo shorts. after several several washings, it's a little hard to tell now, but there is a small maroon paint drop on the inner right leg. my roommate and i were painting our apartment in that red color and a drop spilled onto my shorts. subsequently, it has come to be known as my superbad shorts.

to spare me and any post pubescent girl that is standing near me any embarassment, i bought another pair of shorts. i had been using the pair below for a couple years when a few weeks ago i managed to sit in an oil puddle or something. the unfortunate placement of this very permanent brown/black oil stain seems to suggest i have the inability to maintain my internal bowel movements. i'm pretty sure i was wearing these when i saw julia stiles.

to replace the above shorts, i ordered another pair of shorts. it would be my first online clothing purchase evar. upon receiving the shorts, i noticed immediately that the yellow staining they used to give them their distressed look is regrettably placed near the crotchticular area. all of my clothing seems to suggest either a mild incontinence or bad ordering/timing in the hand-belt-zipper-in-the-bathroom department.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

dining in the dark

my gf and i went to opaque on friday. kaori and chris had fun in the opaque up in sf, so i figured i'd try eating in the dark. per the opaque website:

Just imagine, that you can not see for an hour or two, that you are abandoning vision in exchange for a new, multi-sensual dining experience. Opaque is enhancing our senses of taste, smell, touch, and hearing by abandoning one that we often take for granted – this is “Dining in the Dark”.

Brought to you by Opaque, the dining in the dark experience allows you to willingly plunge into a world of sensitivity you have never experienced before, taking you through a journey of taste, sound and touch, all in the dark.

(yes, this is a restaurant not some viagra dealer). the restaurant is located in v lounge in santa monica, on 2020 wilshire (heh, didn't even notice the 20/20 reference). we were greeted at the front by what we thought was a doorman. however a few milliseconds after my gf asked him "do you want to see our ids?", i noticed he was blind. turns out all the waiters are blind, and they meet you at the door.

you look through a menu and order in the lounge, which is normally lit. the food is expensive (esp considering they don't spend anything on decor or lighting...), but you're paying for "the experience". after ordering, your waiter leads you single file into the dining area.

the dining area is pitch black. consider what pitch black really means. before you go to bed at night, closer your eyes, and put your hands over your eyes. that's pitch black. stated in another way, based on vision alone, i couldn't tell whether my eyes were open or closed. i was pretty tentative when i first got into the dining area, even bordering on freaking out for a couple seconds, but i settled down after being sat.

the first part of the meal turned adventure is buttering your bread. even grabbing a piece of bread and the bowl of butter is a nontrivial task. a few fingers ended up knuckle deep in butter, but that's not much different from most of my meals i suppose. next, they bring out a small anonymous appetizer for you to identify by taste/touch. it's a pretty easy guess, but i'll give you a hint, it's ellipsoidal and it's got a nice surprise inside (extra credit if you're thinking balut).

eating your salad is pretty difficult when you can't see what's on your fork. often, i'd find that i'd raise my fork to my mouth expecting that there were tomatoes or lettuce on it and i'd find the fork empty. the preferred technique for most of the dishes of the night was using my left hand to push food onto my fork, lowering my head close to the table (to minimize fork to mouth distance), and then shoveling.

next, our waiter came by and told us we were going to play the feeling game. we told him that we were already playing that game, but apparently he had something different in mind. he brought out a bag of small items which we had to figure out. apparently, we were the first people to figure out all of them, althought that may be just something he says to all the guests.

we ordered the filet mignon for our main entrees. the restaurant wants you to believe that depriving you of sight elevates your other senses, namely taste. that may be true, but it's difficult to distinguish the effect from the salty salad or the extra buttery cous cous. i liked the extra seasoning of the dishes, but it may be a little much for some. the desserts were good, but if you're a neat freak, you may have issues eating chocolate lava cake and ice cream in the dark (aka with your hands).

our waiter saw that we were on a date, so he took it upon himself to provide an air of romance, even singing a song. most disturbing was when he snuck up on us to hand me a rose to give to my gf. without sight and given my poor hearing, i lack awareness of my surroundings, so when my waiter snuck up to our table to handed me the rose, i wasn't sure who was grabbing my arm. my gf had told me about what i thought was an irrational fear of hers: of people randomly touching her. now that i've had a large man sneak up on me in the dark and hand me a rose, i can now say i share that same fear.

the bright part of the evening was the after dinner mint. they give you a certs mint, which, when bitten into, lights up like a small thundercracker. sitting in the dark for a few hours makes it seem especially bright, it's actually continues to sparkle for a good time after you first crack into it. all in all, it was a pretty fun night, a little expensive to do more than once every few years, but something you should try out once if you have a chance.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

old tricks, new dog

i bought my D90 ~3 months ago and since then i've picked up a whole bunch of toys to sustain this expensive habit. i think i'm finally at the point where (start samuel l jackson voice from snakes on a plane...) ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! i'm pretty happy with the equipment i have so far, so i don't anticipate picking up any new hardware in the near-mid future. perhaps some software, but as far as hardware, i think i'm done for at least a year or so. the equipment i have so far is:

the nikon D90: i had been looking at the D5000 too, but i'm glad i settled on the D90. i'm not sure how i would survive without built in auto focus. i used to take a lot of photos with my canon P&S, so one nice new feature in SLR land is the ability to shoot 4-5 exposures per second. plus, tv tells me (when has it ever lied?) that women will treat me like ashton kutcher with this camera. i got a good deal on it from samy's camera, whose in store price was cheaper than anything google found (no sales tax!).

Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR [Vibration Reduction] DX Lens: this is my default lens (though "default" doesn't really mean as much when you only have 2 lenses...) and has served me really well so far. i had thought about buying a sub 18mm wide angle lens, but the flexibility this lens showed on my hike to the wave made me think otherwise. i know that on my upcoming 14-16 mile half dome hike, i won't want to be carrying more than a single lens.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4D AF Nikkor Lens: i'll switch to this lens when taking pictures of people. on the D90 DX sensor, it's has a 35mm equivalent of a 127mm lens and it opens up to f/1.4, yielding some really good bokeh. helps a lot in low light too, letting me keep fast shutter speeds and lower ISO settings.

a tripod: pretty much required for long exposures like this, also for the few occasions when i need to show my face in pictures.

Nikon ML-L3 Wireless Remote Control: i'll admit, i haven't quite gotten my $15 out of this yet, but in theory i can see it being useful for fireworks and light painting photos. really wish i remembered to bring this and my tripod during our recent bonfire in VA beach.

photoshop: well, i've had this lying around for a while, but i never dove too deep into things. i had been inspired by some old aggressive skate magazines to convey motion by stacking several frames on top of each other. initially i had written a quick matlab program to automate this, but i found i got better results using auto alignment/blending and layer masks in photoshop. manually painting the layer masks takes a little effort, so i may look into writing a more robust version of my own in the future.

a waterproof pack for my canon sd700: there are much more expensive underwater packs for point and shoots, but this one is quite the bang for the $34 bucks.

that sums up all my gear. as they say though, it's not the camera, it's the photographer. (although try submerging your camera and see how well that cliche works for you...)


given the facebook app on my blackberry and feeds on digsby, i've become somewhat of a facebook whore (as you've probably noticed). i've managed to stay off twitter so far (microblogging for someone that blogs once every few months?), but that doesn't stop me from using it conceptually for my own perverse enjoyment.

i stumbled across this, which reports that twitter now has an API which can be used to compute importance. given the daily increase in the rate at which crap is produced on the internet (i'm not excusing myself...), "importance" in searches becomes more and more ... well important.

>6 months ago, a CS student had asked me for project ideas for his scientific computing class. turns out one of my ideas seems like its about to pan out...

from noel
date Fri, Apr 24, 2009 at 10:24 AM
subject Re: Hate matlab!!

oh, well here's something that may be relevant to you: who's the most important person in twitter. we can consider who follows who as a directed graph. we know from CS that we can model a graph as an adjacency matrix, where each column (each column is a person) has a 1.0 in the row if the if the person follows the person in the corresponding row. in this, one way to compute "importance" would be to sum of the rows. if your row has the highest number, you're the most important person, because you're followed by the most people. however that can be a flawed model, because your grandmother is following all 87 of your cousins, so she may be unfairly contributing to your family's importance scores. we want everyone to have a total of one "vote".

so in a more refined model, we can normalize each column to sum to 1.0 (just divide by the sum of the column), so everyone has one "vote". this means that the more people you follow, the less valuable your followings are to others' importance.

the best thing we can do is model our importance as a function of the other people's importance who follows us. so this means that bill gates following you is more important than your grandmother following you. so if you imagine one row of the resulting adjacency matrix, the linear system would look something like (x_i is importance of person i, a_i is the coefficient for matrix A, which you create from the above two paragraphs, lets look at the third row of a 3 person twitter universe, and you can't follow yourself):

a_1 * x_1 + a_2*x_2 + 0*x_3 + ... = x_3

if you write that out for every other column, you see a pattern, which can be summarized in the matrix equation Ax = x. this is identical to Ax = lambda*x for lambda = 1, the canonical eigenvalue equation. so basically, the importance score would be the eigenvector for the normalized directed adjacency matrix of twitter. the highest values in the resulting eigenvector x would be the most "important people". so someone who is followed by lots of important people would be the most important person.

the practical difficulties in this is that the size of the matrix increases in N^2. and for twitter, there are tons of users, probably in N ~= 1e6 or 1e7. the dense matrix can't be represented in memory, but with some tweaks, you probably could represent (some?) of it as a file on disk. so given that you can't just pass in this monster matrix into matlab's svd(A, 'econ'), how can we compute this? if you haven't done it already, you can use a simple power iteration scheme for eigenvalue problems. basically, come up with a random vector and just keep multiplying the matrix by it (then normalize). so then all you need to do is write a matrix-vector multiplication for however you represent your matrices.

note that the above is completely inspired by google's page rank algorithm, which effectively is the world's largest eigenvector computation.