June 4, 2009

I don’t normally see parenthood in my friends. I’ve seen some yearn for it and some dismiss it. Some have come into it, and once there I see them as parents. But it’s startling to witness someone be a parent, before they are one or have to be one. It isn’t just ‘being good with kids’ and it’s unexpected to behold someone take to it with such knack. On the other hand, maybe I just come from a world of being afraid of kids.


A Netbook (“Productivity Lost”)

February 19, 2009

Blame me for the downfall of the U.S. economy. I hardly buy anything except food at ethnic restaurants, and you know those immigrants aren’t real Americans anyway.

My laptop died months ago, and I’ve been making do with my sister’s circa-2001 refurbed desktop. But the internet uses too much flashy 2.0-or-greater-ness lately, and the aged processor with limited memory struggles to stay afloat in even the most mild-mannered blogging interface. There is no little webcam icon next to my name. I’m literally waiting for what I’ve typed to echo on screen. And I probably shouldn’t be folding proteins with idle cycles either.

Surely, the computing bottleneck could be the culprit for lost productivity (or at least impeding a cure for Alzheimer’s). If only I had modern hardware and fiberoptic first-world connections, I would be doing, realizing, achieving something, right? I’d get the script finished, I’d teach myself Ruby, I’d be blogging more or going back to school, I’d be telecommuting or freelancing! I’d at least have an accessory to go with my ceramic cup of counter culture in chic atmosphere.

But Kenyan fair trade coffee farmers (with an aroma of tomato even!) know I can’t afford those three (or three-thousand) bucks. So nowadays I’m selling myself on the idea of a netbook, which is essentially a small cheap laptop (with today’s tech specs, which run laps around  my sister’s computer from freshman year). The reasoning is that a small cheap functional computer now and a dreamier computer “later” is financially more sound, especially if later never happens. Also, a more luggable portable computer (now) and a shiny workstation (now, later, or “later”) temptingly combine for more bang yet less buck than the technogeek’s standard MacBook Pro.

Asus Eee PC + Apple iMac > MacBook Pro ?

Something smaller and, more importantly, only worth $400 at most would fit better in a custom-padded pannier to and from Central Library — the bicycle fantasy to which I someday may return.

Most people wouldn’t have lasted two weeks without a good-enough computer, and normally I would be that kind of techno-needy person. But after shaving every expense as of late in some vain attempt to not be in debt and somehow improve the quality or direction of my life, $400 is a noteworthy decision.

At what point does frugality strain, not so much your lifestyle, but your life? I’ve wanted to get into photography since high school, but years later and I can’t imagine ever having that extra $600 handy to throw at a decent pre-owned entry-level prosumer-grade SLR — not with my self-negotiated “need”-only priorities. The savvy finance blogs say I’m doing the right thing, credit card debt is the devil, blah, blah. But could hobbies be an investment (or, as some say, a loan to yourself from the future)?

And while there is a faint sense of self-congratulation in making do with less, at what point does DIY and frugality become a distraction from real goals? Pen and paper for symbol manipulation is just not working for me, and you can’t really browse Craiglist for jobs or homes with a wide-ruled notepad or even from a library terminal. How is rabid anti-consumerism better than (relatively?) moderate consumerism?

I mean, every pair of jeans I own has a hole gaping so largely on the backside I only wear them at home. (Google is not really providing any workable patching solutions either.)  Am I killing the economy by not ponying up forty bucks for new office casual denim? Is it really that laughably weird of me to be using a CD player from 1999 because I don’t have an MP3 player? Does weighing the carbon footprint of meeting someone for a beer make me shallow? (Only if I don’t go, right?) And at what point does saving money by living in “low-rent” “areas” (you hate) just batter you down with psychological and quality-of-life costs?

Even if I disperse the qualms of sending a couple hundred U.S. greenbacks to the cheap electronics and dirty manufacturing industry overseas and convince myself that an obsession with not using money is still an obsession with money, $400 (including shipping but not global environmental impact) is nothing if it helps me accomplish something or anything.

And that’s kinda the reason why I’ve been holding off, for months even — I’m afraid it won’t make a difference. Not having stuff certainly isn’t helping, but what if having stuff doesn’t either? I’ll have to pedal other excuses.


February 3, 2009

I’ve given a bunch of both online and paper-based organization systems a try — none of them have quite worked out. The tickler file was my latest and best-paper-based attempt to organize, but in my eyes its limitations are thus: (1) it works very well for certain kinds of tasks but not for others, such as day-to-day, and (2) if you don’t have a volume of such tickler-suited tasks, the whole system falls into disuse.

It works great for anything that involves paperwork, documents, or supporting evidence or research and is time sensitive or on a schedule — like preparing documents for a meeting, remembering to check finances or paying bills, reminders for renewing/returning library books (just put the receipt in the tickler!). I can easily see how law offices in the ’20s may have worked with this, and it even helps me be more thorough with such tasks because I can collect task-related documents in one place.

The tickler would see more action if my office work were remotely of substance or I was running a small business. Without that kind of consistent volume of time-sensitive tasks though, the tickler doesn’t tickle. And it’s kinda stuck in my office file drawer, inaccessible from anywhere else.

With both paper and paperless systems, I tend to overload the tasks and maybe I’m not following the “next action” creed the way I should, but I just fall into the habit to pushing back tasks to the point where that’s all I do with an organization system and I don’t remember what the point of the task is anyway. Eventually I stop using the organization system for a while, and try rebooting with another one a couple months later — a dishevelling cycle.

So now I’m about to give Gmail Labs’s Tasks a try. The major pro is that it’s in Gmail, which I use nearly religiously each day anyway. And I really make great use of Google Calendar, so in theory a task organization system that plays well with two systems I already use routinely may stick better.

But mind you, this is just a pre-game report. The cloud of disallusionment with organization web apps usually obscures my RSS reader from Gmail Task literature. I haven’t the faintest clue of how it works yet, but I do like how Gmail’s blog does a run-down of the pros and cons of paper:

Paper has a number of popular features:

  • Easy editing. Cross out with pen and write something new.
  • Works offline. You can read paper even when your PC is not connected to the internet.
  • Mobile. Fold paper and stick in pocket.
  • Instant boot up. Just pull paper out of pocket — don’t have to wait for it to load.

However, paper does have some limitations:

  • Limited availability. You don’t always have a pad of paper with you to write new things.
  • Not ubiquitous. If you leave a piece of paper in one pair of jeans, you can’t access it from the other jeans you’re currently wearing.
  • Difficult to organize. Eventually turns into a giant mess on your desk.

And after that somewhat playful comparison (italics mine), the Gmail blog goes on about iPhone and Android integration. Well, I’m not getting a new phone anytime soon, but I’ve used Google Calendar with a dumbphone (hybrid of paper and auto-texted reminders) with some sucess. So either Tasks can be done without the $70+ a month for data services, too, or I can add it to my list of failed attempts to organize.

Nail Biter

October 16, 2008

I’m watching the Senate race, and 60-40 are numbers to bite nails to. Senate cloture rules give a minority of no less than 41 members a lot of leverage to moderate (filibuster) legislation they oppose, so having 60 or 41 votes in the Senate is the best thing a majority or minority party, respectively, can have — besides the White House.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., explains 41 to the Wall Street Journal:

When I woke up after the election in November 2006, I realized I was going to be the Republican leader and not the majority leader. That was the bad news. The good news is that 49 is not a bad number in a body that requires 60. The United States Senate is the only legislative body in the world where a majority is not enough.

My goal from the very beginning… is to use the power of 41 — or more — to do one of two things: either to stop things that are totally awful…or more frequently, to use the power of 41 to shape. Really bad ideas die in the Senate, and in that sense it has protected America from extremes throughout our history.

Methinks advancing Dems have to take one of the tossup states in the South (Georgia, Kentucky, or Mississippi) and all the others elsewhere whereas defending Republicans have to hold on to at least three tossup states. The odds favor the GOP losing ground yet maintaining 41, however, any ratio nearing 60-40, factoring in moderates, mavericks, and independents, alters the game. gave a 60-seat majority odds of 1 out of 4 a week ago and is now calling 1 out of 3. With less than three weeks left, this is the stretch that’s more like sports than anything else.

Amtrak between NYC and Montréal

August 21, 2008
Adam E. Moreira, via Wikipedia

Photo credit: Adam E. Moreira, via Wikipedia

If you’re considering the train between NYC and Montréal, think again. It’s probably not for you. I took the train both ways this past month, and here’s my report (Adirondack trains #68 and 69, daily service both ways between NYC and Montreal, circa summer 2008).

Time, Schedule, and Customs

The ride is pleasant, but as long as you’re not in a hurry and can hold up for a long time with naps, books, mags, audio, or movies on a laptop (AC provided). What is six hours by car or bus (not including customs) takes twelve by train (not including customs).

Customs takes maybe an hour or two, and if you board this train, expect this delay. Amtrak puts this little matter in fine print, which means that many people are unaware and quite irritated during the process. My train going south was without incident, but going north customs were obviously checking to see if your name was on a list. A couple people were seemingly randomly questioned, one person turned away due to a criminal record (DUI), and all this holds up the entire train.

If your train is late before getting to the border, customs will take even longer, as it did for me. A Canadian customs officer explained that a late train throws the entire procedure even more off schedule.

My theory on customs is thus: customs on the train are lengthy because everyone on board must be processed before the rolling stock moves forward again. On bus or car the passengers are fewer so the delay may be smaller and affects fewer. By airplane, passengers are processed individually upon arrival, so random interrogations or riffraff don’t hold up the entire cabin.

If you’re thinking about taking the train, and you can’t handle the prospect of delays two hours or more, don’t take it.


  • Skip the cafe car unless you’re a fan of bagged chips, canned sodas and beers, and microwaved sandwiches. Bring your own food if possible.
  • AC outlets are below the window, but the power goes out occasionally when the train is idle. (No on-board internet access.)
  • Cell phone reception comes in and goes out as you travel away from civilization.
  • Bathrooms on trains, in buses, at road stops — ALWAYS GROSS.


The view westward, especially around sunset, is nice but repetitive — body of water after body of water with many docked boats in upstate New York, plains and farmland in Québec. I didn’t experience the view east and frankly I didn’t see much on the west going north because my seat was between windows and I slept most the way.

If view is important to you, you might want to queue early and aggressively for prime seat choice. The same goes if you’re not riding alone and want to sit together when the train is sold out. Going south, left is east, right is west. Going north, left is west, right is east.


I would take the train again if it fit my schedule, which is to say when I don’t mind not knowing when I arrive. The bus is marginally less comfortable, and I get headaches if I read whereas on the train I’m fine. The train is marginally cheaper, but that’s hardly a factor after other differences. I’ve heard the overnight bus is a nightmare with twilight transfers and customs procedures.

But I recommend bringing your own:

  • snacks and beverage;
  • ear plugs (as long as you don’t have to worry about missing your station);
  • neck pillow, inflatable or otherwise, maybe a sleep mask if you really want to get your nap on;
  • blanket or long-sleeved or long-panted comfortware (because the train is AC cold and/or drafty);
  • laptop with movies (but alas, no internet);
  • plenty of stuff to read and write while you have half a day to do nothing else;
  • expectation of untimeliness; and
  • companion who you don’t mind napping, talking, or not talking with for 12 hours.

How Popcorn Pops

April 30, 2008

Popcorn was first discovered by the native Americans, who believed that the popping noise was that of an angry god who escaped the kernel.

This factoid is from Wikipedia, which doesn’t cite. Compare above factoid with mine:

Popcorn was discovered in a pantry, next to the microwave, by a boy, who believed that the popping noise was that of molecules cooped up in the kernel, agitated to escape by focused electromagnetic waves.

Everyone’s gotta personify their explanations somehow. Mine are just more frustrated than angry.


March 31, 2008

Yesterday I met a defector. And I was quietly, somewhat sheepishly shocked that a living breathing North Korean was before me trying to get a $30 refill card on a pre-paid mobile phone in a CVS in Washington, D.C.

I know what the media tells me — that they are destitute, oppressed, and need government-sponsored education in order to begin to fit into capitalist society. To his credit though, I couldn’t figure out the pre-paid card at first either.

He and his brother are mid-to-late twentysomethings, here on a government program, jet lagged on their first full day in the United States, and I’m still omfging because I forget that over ten thousand North Korean refugees make lives for themselves in South Korea; although not common, they are increasingly not rare. These two crossed into northeast China about ten years ago, and lived there for years in street poverty before moving to South Korea.

I didn’t show them the cherry blossoms because the logistics and weather weren’t cooperating, so we walked to the “quaint” (commercial) part of Georgetown, where hoodies at H&M can be had for $20 — now that’s a steal for someone used to prices in Seoul. Next I brought them to the most “American” diner I could think of and was nervous when the former refugee ordered the meatloaf. I am like the Worst Washington, D.C., Host Ever.

Russian fur cap or 'ushanka'Among other things, he explained dongmu (comrade), and although I’ve heard the term used before (in South Korean movies like JSA) and I know the connotations of “comrade” in American culture (Cold War movies or Animal Farm pigs or whatever), I never really thought about it.

He compared it with the South Korean term chingu (friend), which he thinks is as problematic as the South’s traditional restrictive society in which ‘friend’ is wrapped, whereas the North Korean dongmu is culturally liberated from the long-standing Confucian doctrine still prevalent in the capitalistic South. He argues that South Korea’s social atmosphere is much more confined by old school Confucian hierarchies than any other East Asian country, especially compared to the communist ones that hold up to Confucius the way Marxists take to the bourgeoisie.

Breaking down the antiquated social order sounds like a page out of a little red book, but what his friend/comrade distinction plays into makes a lot of sense — it’s as if North Koreans are just as startled with and turned off by some aspects of South Korean society as Westerners.

[For a good recap on the issue of North Korean refugees circa March 2008, listen to a (49-minute) podcast compiled by The World (PRI/BBC) from recent reporting.]

Transliteration Misunderestimated

January 30, 2008

The yen has at times beguiled me and I finally gleamed the answer from the ever-wise sometimes-wrong Wikipedia:

In standard Japanese, the yen is pronounced “en” but the spelling and pronunciation of “yen” is standard in English, due to a historical Portuguese transliteration. The inclusion of the letter y is based on romanization of an obsolete writing of the word which included the kana ゑ (ye/we), examples of which can also be found in such words as Yebisu, Iyeyasu, and Yedo (it was still pronounced, however, as e). Like the spellings of names of people outside Japan, the romanization of yen has become a permanent feature.

Essentially the unit is pronounced like the letter N. It would help a great deal if their currency symbol integrated that letter instead of the Y. And it’s not like N is hard for non-Japanese to pronounce.

But seriously, can you imagine that throughout the long and glorious history of the land of the sun’s origin* — from Meiji restoration to postbellum economic miracle to today’s mammoth trade surplus con los Estados Unidos — no one bothered to mention, “Please forgive my humble yet selfishly rude interruption even though you weren’t saying anything and were looking bored, but we pronounce it “EN,” not “YEN.”

This is more annoying than the Korean [soon to be former] president and his name that’s spelt Roh Moo-hyun but pronounced “Noh.” Because the ancient (and might I add not the current) pronunciation of the Chinese character in this Korean dude’s name (노) had an R-esque sound (in other words, “the romanization of an obsolete writing of the word”). Yeah, you just didn’t want to be President No.

* “Sun’s origin” is a somewhat more direct translation of the rising sun moniker and thusly bound to confuse, leading to more annoying badly researched blog entries no doubt: 日本 (Nihon, Japan): 日, sun; 本, origin.

[This post is brought to you by a confusing conversation about a movie called “Yen Town” which in some parts of the world may be pronounced N-town.]

Romance and Riches

January 28, 2008

Amazon just issued a press release about the “most romantic cities” in the country — with Northern Virginia (and to a lesser extent D.C.) dominating. If I were a micro-blogger, I’d change my status to “apparently living in the romance capital of the country.”

“Most romance” here is based on sales of romance and sex literature, so a more accurate, less press-release-y description would be loneliest/horniest cities of America (just in time for Singles Awareness Day).

Last week Forbes was heralding Northern Virginia the richest ‘hood in the country (based on median household income), though. So maybe the burgeoning bourgeoisie is to blame for the erotic book-buying statistics. Or maybe Virginia is indeed for lovers.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — Rinse, and Repeat

November 15, 2007

Mum found a local company in Chantilly that collects and recycles ewaste from consumers without charge a few times a year. My family and I provincially still use the noxious cathode ray tubes, prone to burn out as they are. (And we are not graphics professionals whom advantage ourselves to CRT’s higher refresh rates and better color rendition.) I console myself feebly with DIY power-saving schemes that involve plugging in all accessories into a power strip that can shut them (and their silly 3-watt sucking “power-save” modes) all off definitively.

I’m also picky about my flat-panel displays, and I’m going to wait here in the 20th-century until the mercury-free LED-backlit high-contrast 22-inch-or-higher second-tier-EnergyStar-certified monitor is an affordable replacement for my freecycled CRTs.

Mum was pleased to find a free and feel-good way to rid herself of old dead hunks of crude ’90s manufacturing, but was somewhat horrified when I asked whether the company outsourced the junk disembowelment to developing countries.

On Nov 8, 2007 9:58 PM, [mum] wrote:
> This is the place I recycled. Please don’t tell me they have child labor
> picking bare handed globs of liquid mercury…

Probably “third-world” children (flies landing on their faces) orphaned
by misguided bunker busters and living under totalitarian regimes that
were put in place by the CIA.
So maybe the mercury is the best part of their day.

[Disclosure: This post is somewhat influenced by a read on energy efficiency in the home office.]