Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cheap Media. Loving It.

Recently I purchased a game for my iPad: SandSlides. It cost me $2.

The game is simple but incredibly fun and addictive. Different colored sands fall from spouts at the top, and you must build slides to get the sand into the appropriate funnels. I played it for about a hour and half last night, completely absorbed.

But the last half hour wasn't quite as fun-- I figured out the secret to the game, and I was just plugging away at my strategy. It was no longer challenging. I'd share the strategy with you, but that would ruin the game for you too.

I started thinking about my $2. The game now has no replay value. Should I not have bought it?

Then I checked myself. Often pinball games cost $2 to play once. It's the price of a cup of coffee. Both things I enjoy for less time than I did SandSlides.

So, yes, it was a great purchase. I got much more than $2 worth of fun out of it.

I'm amazed at the world of plenty that we live in. Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowan talks about how we are "cultural millionaires," with access to cheap or free art in excess of what Emperors of the past could experience. Just the other day I got the entire poetry collection of Emily Dickinson for my Kindle for 99 cents. It boggles my mind.

Just reminding you to appreciate.

Pictured: Sandslides screenshot. Go ahead and buy it.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

The TARDIS and the Hare

Once a hare was told he could not beat the TARDIS in a race. The hare looked at the apparently immobile British police box and laughed. "That thing can't even move," he said.

Nevertheless, due to a cucumber sandwich prize promised to the winner,both parties agreed to race.

The day of the race, the hare started running (hopping fast, really), but stopped and noticed that the TARDIS had not left yet. He told his friend beaver to watch the machine and to call him when it left. Then the hare took his time toward the finish line a few miles away.

As he got closer to the end, he called the beaver back. "Has it left yet?"

"Nope," beaver said, chewing on a stick, "just sitting there."

The hare got a spring in his step and jauntily turned the final bend in the road toward the finish line. There was the TARDIS! It has already won! Someone was coming out of it to accept the cucumber sandwich.

The hare, out of breath, crossed the finish line with no fanfare when his cell phone rang. It was beaver.

"It's just leaving now," he said.

Pictured: the TARDIS, a time and space travelling machine from the television program Dr. Who.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

After Three Years With a Mac, It Still Drives Me Crazy

I have been a long-time windows user, but in 2009 I got a big, beautiful iMac for our living area. And in general, it's been great. I love how it looks, I love the remote control, I love iTunes. It's the desktop computer, stereo, and TV of our house. If only I could hook my xbox up to it.

Unfortunately, when I am trying to get work done, it drives me insane, and I can't wait to get back to my Windows machine at work.

It drives me crazy in a few ways, but I'll just talk about one.

Window Manipulation With the Keyboard

On Windows, if you want to switch the focus of the windows, you:

Use Alt+tab until you highlight the window you want. When you release, it's brought to the fore. 

It's that simple.

Here's how it works on Mac OS, and I use the term "works" very loosely:

To switch between applications, you use command+tab. 
To switch between two windows in the same application, you use command+` 
To do this next bit of kung fu, you must first go into system preferences, Mission Control, and assign some key to "Application windows." I used Right command. You only have to do this once.  Okay, here we go: To switch to a window that's been minimized to the dock, you make sure you are in the right application, then hit right command, then move the arrow key until you highlight the right window, and hit enter.  
Here's a particularly frustrating example:  if you're in Chrome and want to switch to a minimized Word document, you command+tab to get to the Word application, then Right Command, then arrow as many times as you need to, and hit enter.

Not only is this very complicated and difficult to remember, but it makes very little sense from a cognitive perspective. With Windows's alt+tab, you know you're going to get to the window you most recently were using. This is very handy, and easy-- your mind remembers quite easily where you just were. Hit it twice and you get to the second-to-last window you used. Beautiful! On a Mac, you have to not only remember which window you want, but also whether it is in the same application, and whether you had minimized it or not. Why should I have to use different commands for all of these things?

Of course you can always use the keyboard, but you can on Windows too. Often it's faster not to.

The dock, in my opinion, is a terrible imitation of the Windows task bar. Unless you do the special key assignment described above, the only way to get to minimized windows is using the mouse--and then, it's hard to know which minimized window is what, because it uses a little picture of the window rather than text that describes it. I don't know about you, but one Word doc looks a lot like another in my Dock. With the mouse I have to mouse over to read the text description.

If you have a Word document open, and you minimize it, you can Command+tab to the Word application, but Mac will not even bring that window to the fore. The only indication that you're in Word is that its name is in the upper left part of the screen. The screen might be blank. Then you have to do my kung fu, use the mouse to find the doc in the Dock, or use the Window menu at the top.

I'm constantly switching windows. Sometimes I'm copying things from one document to another in Word. (use command+`) Sometimes I'm flipping back and forth between Chrome and Word (use command+tab). And God forbid I'm using three or more windows in multiple applications.*

I want to remind you that I've been using the Mac now for three years. At first, my friends told me that I would get used to it. I haven't. Some aspects are just bad design.

Now it wouldn't surprise me if I got comments telling me some creative way to do the things I want to do. And I want to know those things, believe me. However, the fact that I don't know them already means that they are not common knowledge nor intuitive. This is something Apple prides itself on.

As someone who likes to keep up with computers, I use Mac, Windows, and Ubuntu Linux often. I like each of them for different things. The Mac is a wonderful entertainment device, and it's not bad if I'm just writing a Word document or surfing the web.

But when shit gets real, I go to Windows.

UPDATE: After posting this, a friend recommended using a piece of software called Witch, allowing me to use command+tab just like Windows. It works very well and is available in the application store on Mac OSX.

Pictured: iMacs at the Apple Store. In Ottawa, the Apple Store is right across from the Mac store (it sells makeup.)

* I often am using more than three windows. When I am updating my book with new papers, I have two windows with the paper's information in chrome (the email from my student and the literature review google doc for that book), a finder window with the PDF file displayed (so I can refile it), and Emacs open with my book. I just give up on the keyboard and use the mouse, which has its own problems. But that's a rant for another day.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Colon Cancer: A Poem


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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

How Many Projects Should You Have?

My particular method of deciding what to do every day is to assign every half hour to some task. I have a spreadsheet with all of the half hours of the day in the leftmost column (6:30, 7:00, 7:30, etc.). Every morning I go to my calendar and fill in the scheduled things (appointments, meetings, classes, commutes) and then I have a bunch of half hours left over. I go to my todo lists and fill in the remaining ones. Throughout the day I change tasks every half hour. I find it incredibly productive, and just about everyone whom I’ve convinced to try it has found that as well.

However, like many professors I’m prone to taking on too many projects (when professors complain about being overworked, it's usually their own doing). It’s easy, when you look at a new idea, to believe that you’ll be able to find the time to do it. People in general suffer from the planning fallacy, which makes one underestimate task completion times. My todo lists have many things.

The real problem is that if you don’t work on something at least once per week, you lose steam and momentum with it. This is a metaphorical way of saying that the knowledge and memories you need to be productive on the project are not as active in your mind and easy to retrieve as they need to be. So when you go back to the project you end up having to “get into it,” which takes some time-- sometimes more than the half hour you’ve allocated to it this week!

And that’s if you’re only working on a project for one half hour per week, which isn’t good. I prefer to work on all of my projects every day.

So for me there’s a real limit to the number of projects that I can take on. How would this be calculated?

First, you should make a list of the things you absolutely need to do every day. 

Here’s an example list (I encourage you to make your own):

  • bathing
  • eating breakfast
  • eating lunch
  • eating dinner
  • walking dog in the morning
  • walking dog in the evening
  • doing dishes and straightening up the house
  • commuting to work
  • commuting from work

Further, you might have some things you want to do every day but are not completely necessary, such as:

Let's say you want to do these things every day. That's 14 half hours, and I didn't even include cooking times for meals. How many half hours are there in a day? I have about 32, from 6:30am until I go to bed at 10:30pm. That might not sound so bad-- it still leaves 18 whole hours, right?

Well, you probably don't want to work all day. You probably want to have fun, too. Should you schedule your fun half hours? Studies show that you'd be happier if you did. I know it sounds crazy, but scheduling your computer game playing, reading fun books, hanging out with friends, and having sex actually makes you happier.

Not only that, but I've neglected to include things that are scheduled. I'm very fortunate to be on sabbatical right now, which means I have enormous flexibility to work on whatever I want. But even when I'm not on sabbatical, I have lots of freedom as a professor. You might have a job where you don't have a choice about what to do when (e.g., a server), and your half-hours planning might be limited to the evenings and early mornings.

What you'll find if you use this method is that you have less time than you thought you did.

Back to my original question... How many projects can I afford to have? The answer is about 8. However, that's if I want to work on each project for only a half hour per day, which is good enough for steady progress (see, but won't get things done quickly enough for me. So for my highest priority projects (I currently have two) I want to spend an hour per day, which brings my number of projects down to 6.

Now I've got to go to my project list and start trimming.

It's going to hurt.

Pictured: A Stegosaurus sculpture. From wikimedia commons.

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Saturday, October 06, 2012

How To Catch the Wedding Bouquet (and How to Throw It)

I've been to a lot of weddings, and one of the fun traditions is the throwing of the bouquet and garter belt. When I was single I liked catching the belt, so I figured out how to catch it just about every time. I'll share this secret with you. I would also like to note that there is advice on the web already about how to catch the bouquet, all of it terrible. This is the only thing you will ever need to read on the subject.

The video embedded below shows how this kind of thing typically plays out. (It's not necessary to watch it).
The bride gets on the floor and the single ladies get about 10 to 15 feet behind her, all clumped up in a group. Why? It's probably a combination of their not wanting to look conspicuous and because that's where they all think the bouquet will land. On the latter point, they are completely wrong.

What happens next is that the bride throws the bouquet. She throws it more up than back, I think because she thinks that the bouquet getting some air is going to look good. Unfortunately it ends up landing about five feet behind her. It either lands on the ground (I've seen this over and over) and somebody rushes forward to pick it up (doesn't look so good on the video) or the people in front end up charging forward to catch it (not dainty).  People in the back of the little crowd never get it.

So if you're throwing it, resist the temptation to throw straight up. Throw back, as hard as you can. Fortunately, people don't get much practice doing this. But if you're at someone's fourth wedding, they have no excuse not to throw the bouquet properly. If they still manage to throw it improperly, after all that practice, you have my permission to tell them to get it right the next time they get married.

The other thing to keep in mind here is that twelve-year-old girls consider themselves to be single ladies. But they are shorter than the women, so they stand in front of them so they can see. As a result, it is often the case that a very young girl is out in front and ends up with the bouquet. This is fun for her, perhaps, but it means that you probably should forgo the next ritual, in which the guy who catches the garter slides it seductively onto the leg of the female who caught the bouquet, while the DJ plays Sexual Healing or something. This happened in our wedding.

          Wedding guest: Is he going to put the garter on her?
          Vanessa: No, because she's twelve.

The same throwing effect happens with guys throwing the garter. If anything, the effect is exacerbated by the fact that throwing a garter any distance at all is just about impossible. Too much drag, man.

How To Catch the Garter/Bouquet Every Time
I would stand halfway between the groom and the rest of the guys.  There would be about ten guys standing 15 feet away from the groom, and me, standing alone, about seven feet away from the groom.

Yes, it looked weird. I imagine people were thinking that ten guys can't be wrong-- the garter has got to go farther than that.

No, no it won't. Pay attention. The garter goes straight up, and lands right in my hands. Those other single guys never had a chance, poor bastards. Outwitted by Dr. Davies.

I would do this every time I wanted to catch the garter, which wasn't every wedding, because, well...

Did I mention that often a twelve-year-old girl catches the bouquet?

Pictured: A bouquet toss. From Wikimedia Commons. Note the densely-packed cluster of single women.

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