Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Artifice and Intelligence

Fun video of the day: ABB FlexPicker Robots (Youtube)

In other news, I recently discovered Façade, an experiment in virtual storytelling which bills itself as "a one act interactive drama." Essentially, Façade is a game set in a basic 3D environment; however, interaction in Façade occurs mainly through the keyboard, not the 3D environment, with players typing messages in English to the two computer-controlled characters.

As with most games that rely on natural language processing, Façade really doesn't actually do a very good job of understanding the typed messages. The interesting thing about Façade though, is that thanks to the setup (you're stuck between a feuding couple) it doesn't really matter what you think, but your inflections still affect the story. So all in all, it's really well done from an interactive fiction point of view, although it's completely irrelevant to the language processing stuff I was looking into when I found it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Five Down, Zero to Go

Exams are over! Let life begin anew.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Creature Design

The lack of pretty pictures on this blog is disturbing me. I'm therefore breaking from the exam twitter theme to upload some old sketches.

It sort of makes you want to sing "Circle of Life", doesn't it?

...and back to studying.

Augh! My exam just crashed!

Take-home exams and me do not get along.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

1 down 20 left

I just finished a linear systems and signals problem without looking at the solution: feeling pretty good about life.

Exam Time

In honor of the exam period, all posts for the next 1.5 weeks will be twitter-sized.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Crazy Unicode Characters

  1. : the interrobang, usually written '?!', has been combined into a single character.
  2. : the unicode snowman, as seen on unicodesnowmanforyou.com.
  3. : skull and crossbones.
  4. : hammer and sickle.
  5. : victory hand.
  6. : the symbol for terahertz (and you were writing THz, like a sucker)
  7. : the character for radians per squared second.
  8. : umbrella.
  9. : shooting star, supposedly.
  10. : telephone.
░░░░░░░░░░░░
░░░▒▒▒▒▒▒░░░
░░▒▓▒▒▒▒▓▒░░
░░▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒░░
░░▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒░░
░░▒▒▓▓▓▓▒▒░░
░░░▒▒▒▒▒▒░░░
░░░░░░░░░░░░
Unicode face.

EDIT: There's a crazy new emoticon floating around Facebook that uses some truly perplexing characters:

⎝⏠⏝⏠⎠

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lockhart's Lament

This article on K12 math education was written in 2002, but it finally found its way onto my class's Google group in the past couple days: http://plato.asu.edu/LockhartsLament.pdf

Before you dash off to read it, I should note that there are a couple big flaws with the argument. The main one is that he claims that math is useless and that this is a good thing. Math is not useless and it would not be a good thing if it were. Further arguments are below, but you can go read the article first.

--- Waiting. Go read the article. ---

Okay. You've read it? Here we go...

FURTHER ARGUMENTS

Lockhart's stance that math is art and thus useless (but capable of, you know, enlightening people...) does a disservice to both artists and mathematicians. Sure, art can be done for art's sake, but good art is done because people (even people who are not the artists themselves!) like it and it is thus useful.

Indeed, Lockhart's view of art reminds me a lot of List A pieces from the Royal Conservatory of Music. These are the classical, historic masterpieces that are critically acclaimed and all that [lack of] jazz, but are dead boring to a lot of modern students, such as myself. Music, art, and math do not exist in a vacuum. They are made better by being applied to the real world, to real situations, and to real problems.

Lockhart asserts that trigonometry is useless to most people's lives; this is clearly for lack of trying. Trigonometric functions provide a basis for the analysis of all periodic systems, from electrical circuits, to mechanical oscillators, many biological processes, and so forth. Can the beauty of the periodicity of a periodic function be appreciated without realizing this? Sure, maybe, for some people who would undoubtedly make fine mathematicians. There are, however, many cases where math is not developed for its beauty, but for its practical application. Take the Dirac delta function: a vertical spike at the origin of infinite height but with area one. Does that sound beautiful? (Okay, honestly, it does to me, but that's mainly because I've read ahead.) It's hard to imagine someone coming up with the impulse function for purely aesthetic reasons — as it goes against pretty much everything math has to say about functions — but it turns out to be extremely useful (I mean, man, you have know idea how important this one concept is, seriously, yow) for signal processing and the design of linear-time invariant systems (ie. not quite everything, but a large subset of everything).

The point that I want to make though is that the art metaphor is not flawed, but Lockhart annoyingly neglects the idea of pop art (stuff that people can actually relate to) for stuffy avant-garde postmodern cruft that can supposedly be admired for its intrinsic celestial beauty. Art is only art because it has context; math is only math because it is grounded in applications. To paraphrase Lady Gaga, pop culture will never be lowbrow.

Thanks for reading!

P.S. For those of you who have noticed that I drop a lot more Lady Gaga references now than I did before, it's because I need an excuse to link to this video which is awesome. I don't care what you think of dance pop, if you can play the piano with your foot that is damned impressive.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Need a Home?

I remember the days when I had to search for a place to live. Those were not particularly fun times. Finding yourself in a similar situation? Well fear not, for I have the perfect place for you: my townhouse room. 15 minute walk north of campus, $375/mth + utilities. I'll even throw in some fancy furnishings like a desk/dresser convertible, plus a normal computer desk for those of you who aren't into convergent furniture.

See that thing in the foreground there? It's a pull-out desk. I know, eh? Pretty awesome. Also, notice the keyboard in the background? Yeah, that's not staying, but think of all the extra room you'll have!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quizzes, More Quizzes, and the Glowing Sidewalks

I had a bunch of rather stressful quizzes (aka midterms, except that they aren't necessarily in the middle of the term) in the past couple few days. On the plus side, I also had a couple midterms returned that I did reasonably well on. It was particularly interesting to finally see how marking works in non-engineering faculties (disclaimer: note that one midterm can't fairly be used to extrapolate to all courses taught by all non-engineering faculties, but I'm going to do so anyway). For one thing, the marks were quite high: an average of 78%? A top mark of 100%? Only one failure? Preposterous! But aside from that, it was weird to see comments like "good, but too short" instead of "good: 10 marks" or "wrong: zero out of ten". Oh subjective marking, how I've missed you.

Disclaimer 2: engineering does actually have subjective marking. It's currently mostly relegated to a certain online professional development course; still, even mathematical courses usually have some degree of subjectivity. Incidentally, that certain online professional development course has recently been the subject of an independent review (PDF) which is an informative read for anyone interested in such matters.

On a completely unrelated topic: there's a tutorial on Instructables about building a pressure sensitive glowing sidewalk as seen in Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" music video (obligatory link to the official YouTube copy of the aforementioned video). Fun times.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Doing Things the Hard Way

The System's Coffeehouse is Tuesday. The 'coffeehouse' event is basically the laid-back version of a talent show, where everyone does an act, maybe playing a song or two, and it's usually a pretty good way to spend an evening.

This year, I told some people that I'd be doing a song, but I didn't actually start writing it until, well, today. It turns out that I no longer have that (legal!) copy of PrintMusic lying around on my computer thanks to the Great Reformatting of '09 (I could reinstall, of course, but the CD's in Ottawa) and after a few frustrated minutes with a trial version of Sibelius (which looks pretty when it works, but is disappointingly buggy), I decided to write out the darned thing by hand. It's been a long, long time since I've had to write any music by hand and I've forgotten how utterly painful it is.

EDIT: Allegro 2007 30-day trial to the rescue!

EDIT 2: Okay... saying that I need 256 MB RAM and "installation will continue but performance may be affected" is great and all, but I have 4 GB of RAM. Grr. Come on, guys, get it together now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

IGEM Jamboree 2009


I arrived back in Waterloo from MIT about 15 hours ago now. I'm a little bit behind in school work right now, so I can't really do the Jamboree/conference/competition justice (not that I could ever do it justice in a single blog post), but I thought I'd type up some assorted thoughts anyway...
  • Road Trip (1): It's a nine hour drive. A couple of the more experienced members of the team chose to pay for flights instead.
  • Road Trip (2): Toll roads... everywhere.
  • MIT vs Waterloo (1): I've had an unhealthy admiration for MIT for a very, very long time so a lot of the people who knew me assumed I'd be disillusioned by this trip.
  • MIT vs Waterloo (2): They both have those ugly abstract sculptures that are just beams welded together and painted a single colour; however, MIT's are bigger, blacker, and placed in the open while Waterloo's are small, orange, and pushed off to the side. Lesson: if you're going to have a Big Ugly Statue, you might as well make it Big.
MIT has ugly statues too! Ours are still uglier.
  • Hotel (1): The Marriott. Not to be confused with the other gazillion Marriott's in Cambridge.
  • Hotel (2): Once we found the Marriott, it was surprisingly swank. I'm more used to hostels and motels, but the Marriott is a genuine hotel.
  • Jamboree (1): We missed breakfast on the first day. Never miss breakfast if you want to be alert for six morning lectures on synthetic biology. It's painful.
  • Jamboree (2): The Osaka team presented their work on gene art; Valencia mock-interviewed themselves about voltage-controlled light-emitting cells (that were controlled using a laptop sound card); Pavia, Wisconsin, and Uppsala Sweden presented various ways of using biology to solve energy/environmental problems.
  • Jamboree (3): The lunches provided by MIT catering made up for the lack of breakfast. Never has grilled roast beef and pasta tasted so good (with a side of a bun and a godly brownie).
  • Jamboree (4): I saw several talks in the information processing track on Saturday afternoon. I found them more understandable than the morning talks; being fed and interested in the information processing category helped substantially. The Bacterial Decoder project (Illinois) and Satisfiability problem sover (MoWestern Davidson) were particularly cool.
  • Jamboree (5): The 4:30 PM timeslot on Saturday had a few interesting-looking presentations. I passed up the chance to see the MIT and Freiburg software presentations to go to the John Hopkins' talk about their Build-A-Genome course.
  • Poster Session (1): Tom Knight's presence greatly excited a couple members of the team.
  • Poster Session (2): I talked to a few groups about their projects. Nobody really discusses modeling.
  • Hotel (3): Staff are dressed for Halloween. This is probably the only day when plastic weaponry can be freely brandished in the lobby. Then again, it is the States, so maybe they do allow rifles in hotels.
  • Hotel (4): The team from Brussels meets us in the lobby and provide an audience for our practice presentation.
  • Hotel (5): No. Cheaper by the Dozen is not a good movie.
  • MIT vs. Waterloo (3): The campus is surprisingly dead. I feel like there's some cool stuff lurking around, but without any students around it feels like any other conference center. Also, our section of Cambridge is a ghost town over the weekend.
  • Jamboree (6): I didn't see the Alberta presentation, but other members of the team were quite excited by it. They were working on a toolkit for artificial genome construction. This somehow included a "Lego DIY biofab robot". I'm not quite sure how this all worked, but I plan on reading Alberta's wiki soon.
  • MIT vs Waterloo (4): Woke up really early to get breakfast on the second day. It was worth it. Bagels, muffins, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt parfait's, fruits... I can't believe they ran out on the first day.
The MIT nerd crossing sign.
  • Jamboree (7): Another day, another twelve presentations. Waterloo's own presentation about our chromosome engineering project was an obvious highlight.
  • Jamboree (8): Bristol's presentation, which immediately preceded ours, included some pretty cool modeling software. They eventually won the modeling award.
  • Poster Session (3): More posters... it's a bit frustrating that they're all spread out, there were a couple of teams that I wanted to talk to that I just never saw.
  • Poster Session (4): Technically, I could have found posters by looking up the teams in the provided poster list. I think I lost mine.
  • Jamboree (9): the iGEM Canada meeting was quite interesting. It'll be interesting to see how attempts to organize the Canadian teams unfold. There's currently a Facebook group.
  • Hotel (6): The hotel had no free wifi, but it did have a single room with three computers (the "business center") where I could check email and (more importantly) accept a job offer. Collectively, the iGEM teams hogged the business center.
  • Social Event (1): More free food (hosted by Jillian's).
  • Social Event (2): Also free pool, bowling, and ping pong. What type of a bar has a bowling alley?
  • Social Event (3): There was also a dance downstairs. I have never seen so many dancing scientists and engineers in one place. More awesome.
  • Jamboree (10): Finalist presentations. I liked Heidelberg's presentation about developing standards for mammalian synthetic biology. The biologists also swooned over the idea of a universal endonuclease (Freiburg) and Cambridge's pigment-producing E. coli biosensors.
  • MIT vs Waterloo (5): The city and campus came back from the dead on Monday. MIT looks a lot more like MIT when it has students swarming over it.
  • Jamboree (11): Cambridge won the grand prize. Heidelberg was the first runner-up and Valencia was the second runner up. Alberta won for "Best Foundational Advance".
  • Road Trip (3): Parking cost a little over ninety dollars from Friday until Monday.
  • Road Trip (4): The return trip was still a nine hour drive.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Yay

I don't have much to say.
But I am in a good mood today...
So yay.
Time to stop the rhyming, eh?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Knight to C3


One of the guy's in my house is quite good at chess. He doesn't actually have spiked hair or a mohawk, or look in any way similar to either of the characters above, but he's pretty intimidating nonetheless. Case in point: he's supposedly played, and beaten, a grandmaster in speed chess online.

In two-on-one anti-chess (where the goal is to have all your pieces taken), we did manage to beat him though. I've yet to play a real chess game against him, but after soundly beating him at foosball today, a retaliatory chess match can't be too far away. I guess it's time to start training by turning up the difficulty level on my computer's chess program. On second thought, it's actually time to do a circuit's lab and lots of homework... but after that: chess showdown.

(Also: iGEM competition next weekend. It will be awesome. More details to come.)

EDIT: I won! It may not have been a particularly representative match, as he was goaded into attempting a ten move checkmate (which backfired) by the spectators of the game, but I'll take it. The next game will undoubtedly by harder.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Recap Number One

I'm going to be rather busy for a while, so instead of creating new content for this blog, here's a selection of some of the better past entries for your recycled viewing pleasure. Save trees, read old posts.
  1. "How to Buy an Airline Ticket"
    The must-read post that could save you trillions! Or, more likely, teach you something about differential pricing schemes.

  2. "RECOMBINATRON!"
    Computational biology like you've never seen it before.

  3. "On Engineering Blogs and Bluffing"
    This is the post that really got the ball rolling, back in the day.

  4. "Microsoft iPod"
    Color images make their debut on this blog (not counting images of food). This post also features a viral video about branding.

  5. "GUID Socks"
    The greatest single idea since dental floss. Coming soon to a store near you.

  6. "Disc Golf"
    Everyone should play disc golf.

  7. "Personal Satellites"
    Anyone want to team up to build one of these?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

H1N1

Update: The university has a pretty comprehensive page about this issue.

I like the health services provided by the University of Waterloo. They've been extremely helpful to me in the past and I'm glad that they're taking steps to reduce the chance of a flu outbreak.

Nonetheless (and there had to be a nonetheless), it's hard to image swine flu (H1N1) necessitating all the measures that have been put in place. There are signs on the central Health Services building instructing patrons to enter by the back if they have any flu symptoms, including coughing. There have been emails sent to students asking them to self-quarantine themselves if they have any symptoms. Most surprisingly, influenza has been made an exception to the university policy of requiring verification for illness when missing examinations.

This means that if you develop a cough during exams, you're supposed to call Health Services so that they can tell you not to visit them and instead to quarantine yourself in your room and write the exam later. The potential to abuse this system is obvious and I think it's questionable whether students who have early flu symptoms really will self-diagnose and stay at home. Still, preventing a pandemic is clearly more important than avoiding an honor system for exam scheduling, so I can understand the university's decision.

The quarantine signs are still ominous.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

You Don't Know Slow

Driving below the posted speed limit is not slow. The pace of the "Fellowship of the Ring" book was not slow. A snail dragging a brick is not slow.

Then what is slow, you ask, if not these things? A computer program to simulate all possible recombinations of a couple strands of DNA, is what. Specifically, the current implementation of the Recombinatron project I've previously posted about.

We've known for a while that the program was slow. There was talk of "factorial run-time" and "exponential growth" but we didn't really pay that much attention to these things. Time's too short to waste it figuring out Big O notation when you could instead just run the program.

On a computer with 12 GB of memory.


And wait eight hours as the program stalls on step 4 of 255.

...

...

...

It turns out the program's pretty slow. Not "man, FancyApp 2.0 sure is slow" slow, but "man, this won't even be halfway done before the sun dies" slow.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Seriously?

This is depressing for a few reasons:
  1. This is a fairly accurate copy of part of my Signals and Systems work.
  2. All the comments were written by me. Talking to myself. On paper.
  3. The math in it is pretty easy.
Having said that, signals is a good time. Go Ed (Jernigan), go.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Playing with Transformers

I'm on vacation now. Naturally, this means that I no longer have to program, or do circuits labs, or build cardboard bridges. Equally naturally, I'm hoping to get some programming for iGEM done and maybe start a woodworking project and play with electrical stuff...

It was while playing with electrical stuff recently that I found out just how little I actually recalled from my class in Electricity, Magnetism, and Optics (EMO). I mean really, how hard can it be to hook up a fluorescent light? (Answer: if you don't have the ballast, good luck with that.) Even making LED circuits involves a surprising amount of calculation which, engineering student that I am, I immediately delegated to an online designer.

My dad also keeps a box full of random parts salvaged from various radios and computers. This is pretty cool. The box had a few transformers in it, so we decided to test one by hooking a battery up to one end and a multimeter to the output wires to see what we obtained as output voltage. At this point, the electrical engineers reading this (and who have seen the image at the top of this post) can probably guess what happened.

Nothing happened. At least not at first: we had connected the battery, then I connected the multimeter probes, holding them to the output wires of the transformer with my fingers. My dad then removed the battery, and I jumped out of my skin. Fortunately, even with the transformer, the shock from the AA batery was far from deadly.

So what happened here? Why, and this is becoming something of a theme on this blog, am I such an idiot?

The thing is, transformers are meant to be used with alternating current (AC) and not direct current. The reason for this is pretty simple: the transformer consists of two coils of wires which are, as wikipedia says, inductively coupled. And, as I should have known, the induced voltage in an inductor is proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic flux through it. With the battery attached, there was no change in current, therefore no change in magnetic flux and no electrocution. Remove the battery, however, and things do change.

There's nothing quite like a light shocking to act as a remedial science lesson.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Scaring the First-Years

Run. Now. Get out while you can. Drop out of engineering and go into an arts program. Calculus is difficult. The economy sucks; you'll get a co-op job counting packaging peanuts. Friends, sleep, or work: pick work. The cafeteria food is made of recycled plastic polymers. The Canadian geese will kill you and defecate on... well, you get the picture.

If you're just starting university, all you need to know is that you can't trust anything older students tell you. Except about the geese; that part's more or less true.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I need to get out more.

2021: Projected future physique. Polygons: 861. Pounds: 435.
I'd like to keep my low-res polygon count at least double my weight in pounds.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Woohoo! I just saved a hundred dollars.

I was just about to buy Sketchbook 2010 when I got an email from Autodesk thanking me for registering (when I downloaded the trial version) and informing me that as a student, I could get it for free. Go, Autodesk, go.

Check out those custom brushes. Mmm. And straight edges too! Tasty.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Leaked Logos


Designing logos is difficult. Just ask the University of Waterloo: new logo designs that are allegedly part of a new marketing campaign have been getting lampooned with glee since they were leaked several weeks ago (on Facebook, of all places).

This brings me to the fancy circular thing at the top of this post. It is not a new UW iGEM logo; it's just me continuing to test sketching programs (the ring was drawn in Sketchbook, the lettering is from ArtRage). On the other hand, from what I've heard, the iGEM logo may soon look something like this. The reason for the logo change is due to complaints that the current use of the Waterloo lion dilutes the school's branding (more so than the new 'W' logo, apparently).

Even for a logo as simple as this test, there's a surprising number of considerations that I messed up. For one thing, it should be done with vector graphics so that the logo can actually scale, then there's all the technical errors with the perspective and shape of the gear and the DNA strands. Also, this logo is using some subtle shading that would probably get lost in most applications and having the text on the inside of the ring limits how small the logo can be made while remaining readable...

All in all, I'm really pretty glad I'm not working in graphics design.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Personal Satellites


You can apparently now buy kits to build satellites. And I know what you're thinking: that's just a metal container you can throw stuff in. And that's where you're wrong, because it stops being a metal container as soon as you launch it into low earth orbit (this is included in the $8000 price).

I have to say, I've never been more tempted to buy an eight thousand dollar can. I'm not completely sure what I'd do with one, but any project would have to have some communication component to be useful (otherwise you'd never hear from your super expensive can once you tossed it into space). I sort of like the idea of trying some sort of zero gravity biological experiment, but again there's the problem of recording and sending results, plus you'd kill whatever you sent up so I'd feel bad about sending up a pet fish. Weight restrictions would also probably rule out most other animals, but you could probably do something bacterial...

Anyway, enough of my random fantasies, go check it out.

New Gear

I'm trying out some new drawing apps these days. Most of the existing content of this site was made with Autodesk's Sketchbook Pro, but I'm also liking the look of ArtRage, a very similar looking program which has some awesome paint blending features:

An ArtRage Test Image

From my first (really quick) impression of ArtRage, it seems to be a lot more focused on emulating physical media and painting in particular than Sketchbook is. Where Sketchbook is super streamlined and optimized for a quick workflow, ArtRage is teeming with features -- it's almost difficult to draw anything because it's so much fun just to whirl paint around.

The user interfaces for both programs are both extremely intuitive with a tablet PC and are miles ahead of the ones for Photoshop and the GIMP (although, to be fair, those programs are in a different class in terms of features and intended use). Both programs are reasonably priced, although ArtRage is significantly cheaper.

This second image was created in Sketchbook. Naturally, I did spend more time on this then I did on the rainbow at the top of this post because it's a fair bit more complicated (to Sketchbook's credit, the second image was still a very fast sketch). It doesn't really help ArtRage that its trial version, while functional, non-expiring, and very cool, doesn't enable the layers feature which I depend fairly heavily on in Sketchbook. Also, the 2010 version of Sketchbook has raised the bar slightly with the introduction of rulers of its own and an interesting looking mirroring feature.

I've yet to try Sketchbook 2010 and I still have a lot of testing left to do with ArtRage, but ultimately I think it will be hard to beat the type of productivity I can get out of Sketchbook which has all the tools I absolutely need and nothing else. On the other hand, it's a little bit ridiculous how cool ArtRage is, so I might eventually get that as well.

I can't help but wish for a miraculously free or open source program to appear. I know some exist, such as GIMP and Inkscape, but these really aren't particularly good as sketching programs.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Concert's Coming

The engineering jazz band is playing an end of term charity gig Saturday, August 1st. Admission is free, with a recommended donation to the food bank.

Updates:
We're playing at the Waterloo Park Bandstand (http://bit.ly/LBWoy) at "1:29 PM" according to the official schedule, so somewhere around 1:30, hopefully. Also, we're being joined by the jazz choir Accent, who will be their usual awesome selves.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Procrastination Tale

I had an assignment due at 11:45 tonight. Checking my watch, I was disturbed to see it read 9:26. Then I realized I was looking at it upside down. I had a good laugh and turned it around.

Then I realized I'm an idiot.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

(Text)book Review : Signals & Systems (2nd Ed)

I've been looking forward to taking Systems & Signals for a while now, so when the official textbook for this year was announced (surprise! it's the same as last year's again), I went and picked one up.

And yes, I know it's a bit weird to get textbooks over a month before the term starts. And I realize that I probably won't get all that far before the term starts. And I realize that the promised 'review' in the post title will be weakened slightly by the fact that I haven't yet read the book.

But I think there's some value in giving my impressions of the textbook now, before the long and presumably difficult term that is to come goes and spoils my appreciation of it. Or maybe this will help someone deciding whether or not to buy this book at all. Or maybe I'm just crazy. Regardless, I've stalled enough, so on to the review...

The first thing you'll notice with this textbook is that it's remarkably plain. Gone is the translucent periodic table inserted into the chemistry text, gone is the lovely layout design of Linear Algebra and Applications, gone is the marketing spiel, the learning aids and the motivational pictures of Fundamentals of Physics.

It is, in short, not a first year textbook. There is nothing about it really that makes you want to buy it, or feel good about having bought it, or waste your little attention on it. By this point, the makers of this textbook know, you're damn well going to buy the textbook. The alternative, after all, is to flirt with failure and the chance to buy the textbook the second time around.

I'll admit to not being overly impressed with my initial glance through the book, but first impressions aren't everything and, as much as I like textbooks that will compete for my attention, it's really more important that they cover interesting material.

So what material does S&S cover? From the table of contents...
  1. Signals and Systems (duh)
  2. Linear Time-Invariant Systems
  3. Fourier Series Representation of Periodic Signals
  4. The Continuous-Time Fourier Transform
  5. The Discrete-Time Fourier Transform
  6. Time and Frequency Characterization of Signals and Systems
  7. Sampling
  8. Communication Systems
  9. The Laplace Transform
  10. The Z-Transform
  11. Linear Feedback Systems
Now, I realize that list might not strike everyone as fascinating reading; but honestly, Fourier transforms are pretty awesome. Especially reverse ones.

Recommendation : If you're not particularly interested by signals or systems you'll probably be slaughtered by this course anyway, but I would suggest getting the book. It's an old edition so you can pick it up second hand and it could be handy if you ever need to brush up on fancy signal transformation stuff before a job interview.

If you do like systems and signals, then this should be a pretty easy decision. Unless of course, you're really into them, in which case maybe you have a shelf full of signal processing books already.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mobile Homes


The houses are literally driving away now. I was walking to the university recently, when a house drove by me on the road. It took up both lanes and had a police escort.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Keeping Your Sanity (Blanket)


This has been a pretty crazy week for me, which I could rant on for a while about but I've used my 'rant' tag a lot lately so instead I'll just say that I saw EngPlay today.

EngPlay is a once-a-term tradition here and, as the infinitely subtle name sneakily reveals, it is a play put on by engineering students and for engineering students. There is a lot of innuendo, some clever lines, a lot more innuendo, some decent acting, and a bunch of swearing.

It's one of the three events that I look forward to each term, along with the SyDE coffeehouse, and the end of term engineering jazz band gig. Of course, there are other high profile events, including the SCavenger hUNT, Bus Push (ceremonial hauling of a bus for charity), TalEng (talent show), the Water Boys (a cappella group) end-of-term concert, the Accent (jazz a cappella group) end-of-term concert, and so on, and so on...

Yes. Stay sane, kids. Stay sane.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Housing?


Does anyone in Waterloo want to sublet or lease me a place for the next four months to a year? Anyone?

I've yet to find a place to stay and, while I do have some promising prospects, Kitchener-Waterloo is not a good place to be homeless. Not that there are any particularly good to be homeless. Even so, affordable housing in K-W is really not discussed enough (outside of student housing), although there have been efforts to change that.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pandering to the Biologists

Bioinformaticians seem to be disproportionately represented in the readership of this blog, so I thought you folks might be interested in this blog post. It discusses the public relations problems faced by synthetic biology and raises Drew Endy's (presumably) ironic assertion that the field be renamed "Shiny Happy Biology".

It's probably a good thing the PR people haven't heard of our bacterial contraception plans yet.

EDIT: Actually it's a good thing they haven't heard of most of the weird iGEM projects that Andre has helpfully curated.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Video Religion Survey

I was approached yesterday as I walked across campus during lunch by two guys who wanted to take a "video survey" of my religion. They seemed like nice enough guys and I couldn't think of a good reason not to do it, so I took the survey. I basically told them that I'm not religious although, yeah, I've been to church and, sure, I think it's possible that Jesus was a historical figure. The guys wrapped up their questions and explained they were trying to get a feel for religious attitudes on campus.

Today, I was having lunch in a residence cafeteria (we ran out of bread at home so I didn't bother packing a lunch) and was approached by another guy. He struck up a conversation about the cafeteria food and we went on to talk about the university in general for a while. He was apparently a computer science graduate who was just hanging around after graduation. After a while, he slid a piece of paper my way telling a parable about Jesus and explained how He's more interesting when you "let Him into you life" than when you're forced to sit through church services with your parents.

In some ways, I appreciate the efforts of these university missionaries. I'll give them credit for being willing to approach strangers and start conversations, and I do admire their passion. At the same time, I've never really gotten much out of a religious discussion initiated in this way. For one thing, I'm usually in a hurry when approached in public, so I don't really have time to debate the merits of monotheism at length.

I'm also not really confrontational enough to ask the questions that would start a true theological debate. Instead of asking "but even if we did accept the need for a First Mover, why would such an entity have to be a sentient embodiment of moral goodness? And what does 'good' mean anyway? And what's with the burning bush?" I would usually be content to ask "oh, yes?"

Again, I do respect the religious groups on campus for getting out there and pushing their respective causes. I just wish that one of these days some random stranger will strike up a conversation with me to start a great philosophical debate about intellectual property. Or bioethics. Or cheese.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mysteries of the Long Lost Folders - Episode 2

Deep within the Majugi archives there lurked a collection of moldy old Word Perfect documents. They contained prose of terrifying ineptitude created for elementary school book reports and high school creative writing assignments.

But amidst those files, there lay one that was a little less moldy than all the others and reeked a little bit less. It was the smallest file, containing a mere 55 words. So without further buildup...

The room was stifling: I couldn’t sleep; could barely breathe. Every time I drifted off, a moth nearby would beat its wings against my window, producing an irritating buzz. Exasperated, I trapped it under a cloth. The buzzing grew louder.

“Die, you damned moth!” I snarled.

It did.

Strangely, the killing didn’t help me sleep.

...which is all well and good. It satisfied the requirements of the eleventh grade English class it was written for (telling a story with a setting, characters, conflict, and resolution in fifty-five words), but it could use some editing, right?

Strangely, the killing didn’t help me sleep.

The room was stifling: I couldn’t move; could barely breathe. Every time I drifted off, a moth nearby would beat its wings against my window, producing an irritating buzz. Exasperated, I trapped it under a cloth. The buzzing grew louder.

“Die, you damned moth!” I snarled.

It died.

...and once again, I've ruined a classic.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Showering in the Dark


Has anyone else ever experienced this? Our washroom has a timed light which can only be set from outside the room... and no windows. It's great for motivating people not to take half hour long showers in the morning, but I keep forgetting to set it for more than five minutes when showering.

So it's 3 am right now...

Sleep deprivation. It's an important topic. Just go to the Wikipedia page on the topic and you'll find some supposed effects of it that are frightening enough to keep you awake for a while.

Yet sleep deprivation is basically a fact of life for university students. For some, it's a point of honor to stay up late (this usually goes with the mantra "sleep is for the weak"). Others are pressured into staying up to finish assignments, cram for tests, or play World of Warcraft. But the fact remains, you cannot function well when tired. In fact, I don't think I can finish this blog post right now. Seriously, I can't do it... come back in ten hours and this post will be jaw-droppingly good. I'm going to bed.

<------- Nine and a Half Hours Pass ------->

Okay, so what did we just learn here? Other than I've lost the ability to stay up late in my old age?

Things become harder when you're tired. Assignments that should take two hours under normal conditions can suddenly take fourteen hours to complete (I have fairly reliable sources that indicate that this has really happened, but not to me personally... my record is about eight hours).

Can sleep deprivation ever help get things done? I think that most students have experienced a late-night essay writing binge at one point that felt remarkably productive. This is usually attributed to last-minute pressure providing motivation to work. You'll note though, that you only get that feeling with projects that have subjective marking schemes: math assignments never get easier with "last minute pressure."

I'm going to throw a wild conjecture out there: when you're able to write an essay quickly at three in the morning, it's not because of last minute pressure. No, it's simply a case of your standards dropping to the point where you become more focused on finishing the essay that doing it well.

"But," you say, "I got really good marks on all the essays I wrote at 4 a.m. the day before they were due!"

I don't doubt that this is possible, because I've also done remarkably well with essays written in the witching hour. There are times when you need to stop overthinking everything and just start writing, and if too much thinking is the problem, sleep deprivation can certainly cure that.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Disc Golf


It is a beautiful Saturday afternoon here in Waterloo, and I've just finished playing a round of disc golf with my sister and her boyfriend. We went to the Chicopee ski hill which, like a lot of other ski places, is used in the summer for mountain biking, hiking, and recreational throwing of plastic flying discs into baskets.

We played the 'easy' course (the hard one usually involves starting all the holes a few meters back), but still spent a significant amount of time searching through the forest for the discs we threw off-course. Especially the yellow ones. Attention disc makers: greenish-yellow disc + long grass = invisible. Still, it was a pretty good time and disc golf is definitely something that's worth trying.

For the record, I lost. I think my score was something like 110 or so, a little over double the record for the course.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Canada Day!


Oh Canada!
Our home and native land,
True patriot love, in every DNA strand...

Okay, so I still have iGEM stuff on my mind, because we're continuing to code away on Recombinatron (see previous post), but it is Canada Day and that calls for celebration. The engineering jazz band is not in fact playing today, but the Water Boys (a cappella group) will be performing twice today at Columbia Lake for anyone in Waterloo (no, I don't sing with them currently -- I'm just a fan). Also, there will be fireworks and other fun. Yaayyy Canada!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

RECOMBINATRON!

I spent the whole day programming for Waterloo's iGEM team. iGEM, for anyone who doesn't know, is the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition hosted by MIT, the goal of which is to figure out ways to design useful things out of biological components.

There's a subtle but important difference between iGEM's philosophy and conventional biotechnology, and it lies in the issue of design. People have been able to do things like getting bacteria to produce human insulin for a while now, by taking the human gene for insulin production and inserting it into the bacteria. What we haven't been able to do is to really understand the genes that we're dealing with.

Biological parts have been impenetrable black boxes: if something comes out of that box that we can use, that's great, but more often than not we would like to get into that box and tinker. What's more, these parts don't tend to play well with each other, and all sorts of chaos ensues when you start mixing together genes.

iGEM's approach is to create new biological parts. Parts that are not massively complex genes, but simple, reliable, reusable components that have intended purposes and known effects with other components. The goal, really, is to allow for true genetic engineering instead of genetic experimentation.

This isn't to say that all genetic parts created for iGEM are simple or reusable and it certainly doesn't mean that all that many of them are reliable, but we're working on it. The project I was coding today, for example, is intended to allow the team to predict the results of certain biological reactions, the end goal of which is to develop a repeatable method of inserting genes into chromosomal DNA.

At least, I think that's what it's for. Biology hurts my brain.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Unfinished Jungle

(click image for huge size)


I've wanted to do a drawing of a jungle for a while, just because I find all the foliage pretty awesome. It turns out foliage is really annoying because it's simultaneously insanely complex and repetitive.

The drawing ended up being more of a tech demo of different brushes, but I still think the concept is cool. Also, if you click the image for the larger version and then squint at the lower corners, you can make out some neat detail.

WIE!

While half researching and half procrastinating on a professional development assignment (oh yes, we have professional development assignments... but that's a whole other blog post) I stumbled upon another blog called "This is What an Engineer Looks Like".

It seems to be a collective blog written by various women in engineering most of whom seem to go to my school (the University of Waterloo). So there you go, check it out.

EDIT: I forgot to explain what 'WIE' is: it's an abbreviation of "Women In Engineering" and is the name of various organizations dedicated to the women who study engineering, the largest of which is probably IEEE WIE.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Balcony, Meet Bacon



I went to Toronto last weekend. It's pretty. Lots of skyscrapers and flying pigs. This picture reminds me a lot of the view from the CN Tower on a foggy day, although it started out as the view from my sister's balcony.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Head Hurts


(click image to see full-size)

For all those wondering how I managed to concuss myself while getting out of bed...

[In case you can't tell from the drawings, I was trying to wake up, but kept giving up and falling on my pillow. Then I got close to getting up and managed to hoist my body off the bed -- which just means I missed my pillow when I gave up.]

I'm fine now, by the way. And I probably didn't really get a concussion. No really, Mom, I'm fine.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

GUID socks

I was folding laundry this morning, when I was distracted by the realization that socks that had a little brand name printed on them were much easier to pair and fold than the other socks. This isn't a huge revelation, but it made me think back on all those times that I've paired two not-quite-identical socks together and wished I had some way to tell which ones actually did match without having to spend time inspecting them in minute detail.

So how could we tackle this great new problem of sock matching? Well with socks with globally unique identifiers (GUIDs) printed on them of course! Guids are 128 bit numbers, which means that there are 2^128 (approximately 3.40282367 × 10^38 for those of you who prefer to think in base ten) possible different ids. This is a gargantuan number, one so large that it allows ids to be constantly randomly generated with almost no probability of duplication (if you generate one of these ids every millisecond for the rest of your life, the odds are still very much against you finding a duplicate -- heck, you could generate one every nanosecond if you want). All this to say that guids are unique and can be written as strings, so all we have to do is print the same guid on matching pairs of socks and presto! Insta-matching socks.


(Click for Larger Image)

There are further improvements that could be made to this design of course. The text is a bit hard to read at a glance, so we might want to colour code each digit in the guid so that visual recognition of the guids is a bit easier. An even fancier solution would be to transform the guid into some more visual form, perhaps using the guid number to seed a fractal function. What you lose in style, you more than gain in geek cred -- not to mention the original point of folding laundry faster.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Helvetica is Expensive

Stung by criticism from xckd and college humor videos about my choice in fonts, I decided briefly to try out this whole 'Helvetica' craze. It turns out though, that that's not included with Word. But hey - no problem - I'll just load up Firefox and download it! Right?

It turns out, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, that you have to pay for that privilege. 43 Canadian dollars will get you one set of characters. If you want that in bold and italic (or bold and italic, or a few other basic variations) it could run you a couple hundred. And if you wanted the full pack, with the international characters, accents, font weights, rounded edges and whatnot it costs about nine hundred dollars. Nine hundred dollars.

Not that I begrudge Linotype for profiting off this font. They did after all put in a lot of serious design work into those letters fifty years ago and they should be rewarded for that. And they are undoubtedly trying to keep the unwashed masses away from the font, which is supposedly overused already. But still: nine hundred? I'm sorry blog readers, but you're just going to have to put up with Times New Roman and Arial (that's close to Helvetica, right? Oh fine, no Arial).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

BIG FISH

The BBC has a cool photo of a really big fish today. It's really, really big.

Meanwhile, on campus, it looks like Stephen Hawking might not be able to give a guest lecture in town after all due to his health problems, which would be most unfortunate. However, I was looking at the archives of previous lecturers and we've had some pretty impressive people speak here. Amongst them: Roger Penrose (of Penrose tiling fame), Leonard Mlodinow (physicist and author of The Drunkard's Walk and Feynman's Rainbow), and Jay Ingram (my idol).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Renovating, Please Stand By

*We interrupt this post to bring you an informational update about the website.*

I've been ignoring my main domain (majugi.com) to write this blog for some time, but it will soon be coming back online to host more permanent pages. A new homepage design is already up to test the layout and links to this blog.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I Love Libraries

It's the long weekend! Yay!

It's also rainy, most people have gone home for the weekend, and the jazz band canceled practice. In short, it's the perfect time to finally get a library card. This is process is a bit annoying for students who move every four months, but digging up the sublet agreement and filling out a form is a small price to pay for a free bookstore, music store, and movie rental place within walking distance.

So what did I get on my first visit to the library? I decided to get one item from each of the three main media types the library carried (books, cds, and dvds) and ended up with:
  • Anna Russel -- Again? (CD) (They also had an album by the Arrogant Worms)
  • Man, Beast, And Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature (Book)
  • Farscape: The Best of Season One (!) (DVD)
Yes, I'm a happy geek right now. Goodbye piracy, helloooo public library.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Rob's in Malawi

And you can read all about it at http://robinmalawi.com/.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mysteries of the Long Lost Folders - Episode 1

Hey, look what I just found in my drawing folder (see above)! It's all weird and artsy! I get the feeling Freud would have a lot to say about this picture.

In other news, I visited my sister over the weekend and she introduced me to Wasted Talent, a webcomic drawn by an engineering graduate who for some reason wants to go and indulge her weird artsy side. It is most unnatural. Having said that, it's also awesome. [Sample joke: a prof says 'Ignoring the air resistance..." causing two students to snicker at the thought of deadly rain that never hits terminal velocity. No seriously, it's funny.]

Ninjas and Health


If you aren't healthy enough to withstand a ninja attack, then you're not really healthy. Which is why I've finally caved to parental and doctoral advice and am going to go get some physio.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Day in the Life

This post is a bit belated, but I was going too crazy on the day it actually happened to write about it then. The day in question was the 20th of April; the day of my last exam.

I woke up that morning to find a probability exam written into my schedule. It had been scheduled in the night before in the large, desperate, pen-scratch font that is customary for scheduling morning exams. "Heed me," the font screamed from the sticky note on the wall, "or suffer the consequences as you sleep through your exam and fail miserably out of life."

And heed the note I did, as I sprinted out of the house and onto the bus towards campus. True, I came closer to missing the bus than I should have due to a poorly laced boot that threatened to fall off in the final sprint, but I caught the bus nonetheless and all was good. Yes, all was good, for not only had I caught the bus, but I had studied well for that exam and felt prepared to do battle with it. I felt, as I rode onto campus, like a probabilistic cruise missile, ready (nineteen times out of twenty) to deliver a deadly payload of ninety-nine point nine percent accuracy onto the questions that defied me.

That was until I realized I had left my wallet on the bus.

You see, earlier, upon boarding the bus, I put my wallet on the ground to tie the laces of my boot which, as you will recall, had come undone in the sprint to the bus. This literal undoing of shoe laces threatened to initiate a larger, more catastrophically metaphorical undoing of my mind right before the exam as I freaked out about my wallet. But I digress.

I should clarify that at the time of this incident, my wallet also contained almost every piece of ID that I own, plus the student card required to write my probability exam.

Fortunately, it turns out that people don't really care about that whole "show the student card" rule during exams. I subsequently aced that exam more thoroughly than I had any right to expect.

So the exam was over and things were going swimmingly, but I still didn't have my wallet or, by extension, any way to get into my house (yes, my wallet also had my keys in it). At this point, I called up my sister, a seasoned pro in losing stuff on buses, and a short while later we found that my wallet was being held by the local transit authorities.

Success! Exaltation! Oh, happy, happy day! I didn't even care that I had yet to retrieve my wallet from the bus terminal across town; it was found and everything would be okay. I was feeling so good about this turn of events, that I decided to just trek out and pick up my wallet. Of course, I knew it was a long walk and that it was raining, and that I probably could have just borrowed some change from someone to pay the bus fare before I got my wallet back, but that didn't matter to me just then.

It started to matter to me a lot more over the course of the next hour. Eventually, I was wet enough and lost enough to use the old 'phone a friend' tactic.

"Help," I pleaded, "I am cold and wet and have no idea where I am."
"Bahahahahaha" he replied, but, fundamentally non-evil person that he is, he then googled my location and joyfully informed me that I had been walking in the wrong direction for an hour.

*Sigh.

Well that was pretty much the interesting part of the day. After that, I walked back, met up with the guy I had called, borrowed a bus fare from him, retrieved my wallet, and then went to a restaurant and had a grand old time celebrating the end of the term.

The End.

No Sequel. Ever.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Long Walk on the Beach

The data structures exam went well, so I'm tossing up this drawing of a guy relaxing on a beach to counteract the depressing tree sketch below. Unfortunately, the water looks pretty depressing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Data Structure (Exam Tomorrow)

Two exams down, three remaining. Next up: data structures and algorithms. Yay, b-trees.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Study Spots

(click image to enlarge)

I move around a lot when I study. It's an ongoing quest of sorts to find the perfect study spot where you can relax in comfortable surroundings (possibly outside) with a nice desk (maybe some air conditioning) and access to a computer. Ideal study spots should be out of the way so that you can have a nice solitary working environment, but not so out of the way that you can never see the Sun if you have to stay there for a few days; they should also be comfy (as mentioned above) but no so much so that you end up falling asleep in your textbook.

P.S. The lighting and a bunch of other stuff in the picture in this post isn't all that well done. However, I'm really tired and have a bunch of exams soon.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

12.5

12.5 hours remain until my first exam. Hence the twitter-sized post.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Design the System

(click image to see full-sized)

I knew a guy back in high school who had one of those "F--- the System" shirts. He was a pretty cool guy and he managed to get away with the blatant infraction of the school dress code that occurred each time he wore it.

Still, as fun as it is to wear slogans like "eff the system", there comes a point a in one's life, around the time when one enrolls in a systems design engineering program, when such slogans start losing their appeal. It's pretty hard to stick it to The Man and The System when you're the guy who's supposed to be designing the system.

It's a frightening thing realizing, after all these years, that you're The Man everyone's been printing angry t-shirts about. "Look," you want to say, "the System's not that bad, all right? I mean, okay, it sucks a little, but I'd like to see you do better and hey! Stop making those hand gestures at me, you little twits!"

The point is, it's easy to criticize and it's even easier to not criticize and just ignore things, but when it comes down to actually fixing problems things get a bit more complicated. Now, I'm obviously biased, but I think that engineering is probably one of the best equipped fields to deal with these problems. But what I didn't really consider before beginning my degree is that there's only so much that can be taught in four years and during that time the world's problems are not going to get any easier to solve.

It's particularly mind blowing to me that, due to the amount of new knowledge about the world gained by scientists and engineers in the past few decades, a few years of an undergraduate (or really even a high school) degree will give you more theoretical knowledge (in certain fields) than practicing engineers of a half century ago. The reason this blows my mind is that it leads to the question: knowing only what you know today, could you invent and build a lightbulb? A record player? A computer?

Naturally, I'll be more qualified in five years than I am right now, but you have to wonder: if I there were a reasonably good chance you could become a practicing engineer five years from now, what could you do right now?

[DISCLAIMER: I am not an engineer (yet). The PEO would destroy me if I tried to claim otherwise. Not that they read my blog. (And PEO members, if you do read this, I'd love to hear about it.) ]

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Microsoft I-Pod

There's a video floating around the internet these days of how the iPod packaging would look like if it were redesigned by Microsoft. It's pretty entertaining, especially considering that it was produced for internal use at Microsoft.

I also went and coloured one of my old sketches:

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bands, Blue Men, Bridges, and Balls of Toilet Paper

A lot of stuff has happened since I last wrote here, so this post will be an interestingly funky hodgepodge of stuff (hopefully).

First up: I just got back from an end of charity gig I was playing at with the engineering jazz band. It was pretty rocking, if I do say so myself. I'm also listening to a Blue Man Group CD while writing this, so I'm definitely riding on a bit of a music high at the moment. The Blue Man Group album (The Complex) is also really good, so I'm not really paying attention to what I'm writing. I apologize for this.

Second: The final project of my Mechanics of Deformable Solids course (which shall be referred to henceforth as 'MoDS') was to build a bridge out of cardboard (well, millboard, technically). We tested the bridges this week, which was a lot of fun because (a) it helped satisfy everyone's natural need for watching things break, (b) some of the failure's were pretty cool examples of shear deformation as the bridges slowly contorted around weak points, and (c) my group did well, supporting five hundred pounds with our 0.96 kg bridge bridge and getting within ten pounds of our predicted failure load. Granted a 1:250 weight to strength ratio is not unbelievable, as there was a group that supported over seven hundred pounds (and the all time record is rumoured to be over a thousand), but it's always nice to see stuff work the way you expect it to.

And last up: the balls of toilet paper. Yes sir. This one needs some explaining...

You see, on the day of the bridge testing, it also happened to be April Fool's Day and naturally, in our houseful of engineers we wished to celebrate the occasion. Naturally, with a Costco-sized supply of toilet paper available, the thought of strewing paper around ('TP'-ing) one of housemate's rooms was suggested, but, nice people that we are, we decided that was too messy / unoriginal / difficult to clean up. Then the classic idea of gluing all his furniture to the ceiling (using glue leftover from the bridge project) was floated -- again though, too evil.

Then genius struck.

We'd leave the toilet paper rolls in their plastic packaging and tape them, and other small items lying around, to the walls and ceiling. It was simple, clean, surreal, visually interesting, and (at least in our own eyes) a work of art.

You wouldn't think that this plan would be very hard to carry out for a couple of guys who just built a bridge a gorilla could walk over out of cardboard... but it turns out that scotch tape doesn't adhere well to the ceiling and it was having a lot trouble supporting the weight of the toilet paper rolls. The prank was turning out to be on us as the few rolls that were able to briefly stick to the ceiling came pelting down onto our heads after a few minutes. Lesson learned: use masking tape; it's much more effective.

So finally all the toilet was stuck up, with a water bottle and kleenex box strung up for good measure, and we built a little pyramid out of the remaining toilet paper and rubber ducks to fit in the doorway. The whole thing went over with my other housemate pretty well, although we quickly discovered that toilet paper balls made good projectile weapons in the same way that nerf balls do (because they have enough weight to be tossed, yet still don't hurt). After this discovery, we spent a bit more time exploring the possibilities it created (read: all out toilet paper warfare) before cleaning things up (all right, technically, we haven't gotten to the cleaning part yet).

I could go on, but I'd rather go and sing along to some songs on my computer.

If I sing a song / Will you sing along / Well I keep on singing right here by myself... ba dow dow dow bow dow dow dow, ba dow dow dow ba dow...

[Edit: For anyone concerned that with all the above shenanigans, I'm not studying / writing about studying enough, let me add that as of last Tuesday, my last 'midterm' was over, and as of Friday classes are done for the term. So yes, much studying will ensue over the next month as exams hit, but that won't stop us from having our exams and toilet paper too.]

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How to Buy an Airline Ticket

Well, I can finally say I've attended an MIT lecture. Dr. Belobaba from MIT's International Center for Air Transportation (ICAT) dropped by today to give a guest lecture on the topic of airline pricing schemes and revenue management.

It was an interesting talk that did a good job of explaining why airlines feel the need to have multiple fares for the same flight and to sell tickets at different prices depending on when they're bought.

Basically, airlines want to sell as many high-priced tickets as possible, but they know that there are a lot of people who will only fly at lower costs, hence the need for differential pricing. Then of course, the people who were willing to pay more won't be quite as happy to part with their money if they know that someone else is getting the same service for the same price, which is why airlines introduced restrictions on low fare tickets including "Saturday night stay" conditions that prevent the type of quick round-trips that businesses require.

But on top of these differential pricing schemes, the airlines also use revenue management. That is, they reserve a certain number of the more expensive tickets based on statistical models for how many they believe they'll be able to sell. This is sensible enough, because if they know that they will eventually sell out a given number number of expensive tickets, they don't want those seats going to starving students who will only pay the cheap rate. Of course, they don't know how many tickets they'll be able to sell exactly, so that's where the probability comes in.

Technically, you look at the expected value of some probability function to do this, but all that means is that the cutoff for reserving a ticket of a certain class is the point at which you get the same number by multiplying the ticket's price by its probability of being sold as you do when you multiply the price of a cheaper ticket by its probability of being sold.

Anyway, what this all boils down to is that, first of all, you won't get the super cheap tickets months in advance, regardless of the probabilities, because airlines know they'll be able to unload those later relatively easily. The cheap tickets actually start appearing once the revenue management system kicks in and it realizes that the expensive tickets are being undersold. Now, if the expensive tickets are actually selling really well than you can forget about the cheap ticket and start wishing you had bought one before the prices tripled, however the upshot of all this is that given the statistical anomaly that is the current economy the model forecasts might be overshooting slightly.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

I'm Stupidly Full Right Now

As I mentioned in my last post, I was making pork chops for dinner. The grainy picture above, taken by my cell phone, shows the results. It was quite good and the actual cooking is really student friendly (it only has something like four ingredients) so I can officially recommend the recipe.

Rainy Day

It's Saturday evening and it's been raining all day. That's not really a bad thing; I've gotten some work and laundry done and a pair of pork chops are currently being simmered on the stove, so all in all it's been a decent Saturday.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

If I Wrote a Textbook...

Figure 1: Godzilla looms over Billy.
Godzilla's foot is towering 0.3m above Billy's head. If Godzilla's foot weighs 200 kg and Godzilla's leg muscles exert a force FA of 30 Newtons onto the foot acting downwards at an angle of 30 degrees to the horizontal ground plane (see diagram), how much time does Billy have to move to avoid being flattened?

See now this is the type of problem people can relate to.

[Bonus: Write a differential equation expressing a werewolf's rate of change with respect to the phase of the moon. Use this equation to calculate how quickly someone needs to be locked in a cage once they start transforming, given that signs of werewolf behavior are detectable after the transformation is 20 percent complete. Use a safety factor of 1.2 and assume the lock is sturdy.]

EDIT: A few corrections for the first problem: assume that Godzilla's foot is large enough that it's horizontal motion in the brief time before impact can be neglected and that the foot will indeed impact Billy if he does not move. Furthermore, assume the foot has no velocity at the instant depicted in the question. Resolution of ambiguities in the bonus question are left as an exercise to the student, but be sure to state all assumptions and reasoning.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Lots of Mayo

The above picture was of my brunch today. It's a tuna salad bagel plus some deviled eggs. I know it doesn't look particularly fancy, and compared to the stuff my housemates make (oven roasts cooked with wine, homemade chili, etc.) it's not that adventurous. However, I've had a bit of a phobia with hard-boiling eggs ever since I saw one of my previous roommates attempt it to disastrous results (yolk... everywhere...), so this is a something of a breakthrough for me. Also, it tasted delicious.

Ah, student cooking. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go cook up some noodles for lunch tomorrow (we ran out of bread).

Crazy Random Happenstances

So I went on the band trip I was mentioning earlier. It was a good ol' time, going to a rival engineering school and playing with their band. I'll have that Maniac song stuck in my head for a while now.

You may also have recognized the phrase "crazy random happenstance" used in the title of this post as a line from the musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It's hard to describe how cool this online musical really is -- I mean yes, it has an amazing cast, writers, and songs (many of which were recently blatantly stolen and rewritten for the university's Faculty, Alumni, Staff, and Students [FASS] Musical) -- but more than that, the DVD version has a musical commentary track. The awesomeness of this is mind blowing. Go grab some popcorn and have a listen!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rough

I drew the above figure of a little student being crushed by a pile of work to reflect my current mental state. On the plus side, at least arches are generally fairly strong structural elements; unfortunately, the construction of this particular arch appears rather flawed so our student may well be smushed shortly.

There's nothing quite like midterms. They induce about 20 to 40 percent the stress and sleep deprivation as final exams (figures based solely on grade weightings), while also being right in the middle of classes. It's easy to get into a situation where you feel like studying one subject will cause you to fall behind in all the others; you'll note that the student in the drawing doesn't actually have an open book in front of him, but removing a book will cause the whole setup to collapse.

However, midterms come and go... and with enough sleep they even usually go well enough that understanding and grades can be salvaged by the end of the course. There's also life after midterms: an hour after my last midterm this Friday I'll be headed off on an engineering jazz band trip. Wee! So on that note, I'm off to bed.

Friday, February 20, 2009

On Engineering Blogs and Bluffing


I've always been a big fan of the blogs published on the MIT admissions page. Establishment propaganda or not, I imagine they do a really good job of getting young little MIT freshmen excited about their school and preparing them for their first year.

However, I am a Canadian engineering student in second year. This means that: (a) I don't go to MIT, (b) I've already passed the excitement that is first year engineering, and (c) I can't really relate to institutions that bleed money.

Hence this blog. This blog is for every student that wishes their school was just a little bit better, for every engineer that secretly loves arts, and every arts student who really wanted to be an engineer; most of all though, this blog is for whoever the heck can find it.

But enough of the manifesto! I'd like to take a moment to bring the non-engineers up to speed so without further ado I present to you The Majugi Guide to Bluffing Through a Meeting of Engineers:
  • XKCD is awesome. (Also valid for meetings of mathies, CS students, or internet junkies)
  • The engineering song: "We are, we are, we are the engineers / We can, we can demolish forty beers [alternatively: fix anything with gears]" after these two lines start mumbling but try to join in for the part that goes "and we don't give a damn for any damn [mumble] that don't give a damn for us."
  • Lady Godiva is the mascot / patron saint of engineering. She got the gig by riding naked through town on a horse.
  • Regardless of your gender, you believe there are not enough women in engineering.
  • Engineers who have graduated from Canadian universities receive Iron Rings. They are meant to be reminders of engineers' responsibilities as the iron was originally taken from a collapsed bridge in Quebec.
  • You cannot legally call yourself an engineer in Canada unless you have the P.Eng certification. Don't worry though, you can still blend in with engineering students by calling yourself a plummer (supposedly -- I've never actually heard anyone use the term).
  • If you're really having trouble breaking the ice, flap your arms together like a seal and repeat "arts, arts, arts" in your best seal-impression voice. [I can't claim to have come up with this on my own, but it's a sure-fire way of amusing engineers.]
...and for those of you who knew everything on that list I present The Majugi Guide to Appreciating Arts -- ie How to Avoid Being a Complete Douchebag:
  • Don't do that artsy seal impression in front of arts students.
  • Pick up and read a campus newspaper every once in a while.
  • Note that arts students actually have time, so they make great recruits for thankless but crucial roles in organizations such as Engineers Without Borders and student governments.
  • Student film festivals are amazing... particularly if admission is free for students.
  • Drama productions are usually surprisingly fun. Try to go on the last performance on the last day when they'll often allow heckling.
  • You're not a computer power user until you've used it to compose music, draw, do some 3D modelling or animation, or something similarly artsy. A very elegantly coded hash sort does not count.
  • To develop a quick appreciation for visual artists, try making your own graphics for a website, or a video game, or for the GUI of any fancy software project you might be working on. If you've tried this and you're smugly thinking it was easy, show your design to a non-engineer and watch as they recoil in horror.
Thanks for reading. Homework beckons.

The Beginning

Some people make New Year's resolutions on January 1st. Others use the Asian or lunar calendars, or even the beginning of a school year as a time to reflect and set new goals and lofty ambitions.

For my part, I find mid-February during my school's reading week to be particularly conducive to resolutions. This is a time of relaxation, when the overwhelming flood of work from school is temporarily (oh so temporarily) held at bay and there is suddenly time to contemplate life after assignments. It is also a foreboding time, with midterm exams looming and grades hanging in the air. Together, boredom and guilt are very strong motivators, matched only by years of procrastination experience to channel the need to be productive away from studies and into wild ventures such as acting a musical, building a snowman, or starting a blog.

So here we are.