New blog: Glyph of the Day

Posted in Random thoughts at 11:52 pm by ducky

Oh yeah.  Hubby says I should mention that I am writing a new blog: Glyph of the Day, where I plan/hope to write about a different writing system every day, hopefully briefly.

My goal is to give one “Whoa!” each day; if I can’t do that, I’d like to at least give one “huh, I didn’t know that”.


LOLcats ISO code

Posted in Random thoughts, Too Much Information at 11:15 am by ducky

I’ve been working on LOLcat subtitles for Sita Sings The Blues, and a friend asked me what the ISO 639 language code for LOLcat was.

It turns out that the ISO 639 language code LOL does exist, and is for the central African language Mongo.  Who knew that the kittehs were African!?!?

Update: My buddy Luther points out that the African Wildcat is the ancestor of the domesticated housecat.  As he pointed out, “Duh.”

Update2: Luther also asks, “I can haz bank scam?”


Dream date

Posted in Random thoughts, Too Much Information at 1:18 pm by ducky

I’ve had a constant question running in the back of my head for a long time, “Who would you have dinner with if you could?”  (I talked about this a little in the post about Steve Wozniak.)

I have expanded it a little to which three people I would like to be at the same table with, or even just to witness.  I’ve decided that my dream dinner team is Randall Munroe of xkcd, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

How to go about pulling that off is a trickier matter.  Step one would probably be to do something really interesting, such that I would be a desirable dinner date…


The view from our Canadian window

Posted in Canadian life, Random thoughts at 2:08 am by ducky

If you know us, you know we have raved about the view from our apartment.  It’s not the absolute best view in the world, but it is pretty stunning to a gal from the flat lands and buildings of Champaign, IL.


That picture (and an absolutely ginormous version) were taken and stitched together by Randy Stewart from Seattle.

Randy apparently walked into our apartment, said, “Oh my god!” or something such, and dashed into our bedroom to take pictures.   Our other dinner guest, from metropolitan Canada, was slightly perplexed/bemused by his reaction.  It is completely ordinary for people in cities in Canada to live in high-rise apartments.

Randy (and Jim and I) are from the US.  It is very uncommon for people to live in high-rises in the US.  If I think really hard, of all the thousands and thousands of people I have known, I can only think of six households who I know ever lived above the sixth floor, and one more who I think might have had a high-rise condo a few years ago.  (And three of those households were in the same building in Mountain View.)  That is it, period, total, everybody, and I had to think pretty hard to come up with that meagre ration.

Why are there so few high-rise residences in the US?  There are many factors.  I am by no means an expert, but these are a few:

  • The American Dream of owning your own house is cliche for a reason.  It is assumed that if you don’t own your own house, at least you aspire to owning your own house.  To not aspire to have your own house is sort of like not wanting to own a TV.
  • When renting, you generally get more square feet per dollar in a shared house than in an apartment, especially a shared apartment.  Even I, through all my moves, have only lived in four apartments in the US, and two of those were while I was a student.
  • In some places, the only high-rises around were “the projects” — government-built and -run publicly-subsidized housing.  Thus high-rises were decidedly un-sexy.
  • In California, where one-eighth of the US lives, cities can’t afford dense housing.
  • California has earthquakes, which makes people nervous about high-rises, even though high-rises constructed to modern codes are much safer in earthquakes than older houses on landfill or alluvial floodplains.
  • Traditionally, cheap gas has meant that it was feasible to live quite a ways from work.
  • In the US, not having a car can have a significant negative impact on the quality of your life, parking is difficult in cities, and very few US cities have good public transportation systems.  The poor transportation is due partly to density, but also part to the easy availability of guns.  Many people in the US are afraid of taking public transportation.

You should also note that Vancouver has worked very hard to develop its downtown.  The fact that it has a vibrant and vertical downtown was the result of very deliberate and careful urban planning, not an accident of fate.

UPDATE: I realized that several of the dorms at my US university were high-rises.  I’m not sure that counts.


High status people do good things

Posted in Random thoughts at 8:33 pm by ducky

In an article for Slate, Daniel Gross points out that the Davos attendees, who are quick to lionize Great Men (yes, usually men) when there are big successes, are blaming the system now that things are going wrong.

I am not at all surprised.  As I have blogged before, Larissa Tieden’s research shows that people think that high-status people do good things and that low-status people do bad things.  In this context, low-status people are not powerful people who do bad things, but the invisible, the drones, the unseen — the system.

In this case, it is rather obvious that many, many people were complicit in the financial collapse: from those who made financial policy, to those who perpetuated the policy, to those who made bad deals, to those who took risky deals.  I don’t find fault with saying that the system caused the failure.

I do think that we under-recognize how many people are “complicit” in successes.  While it might be tempting to say that Google’s success, for example, was the success of the Great Men Larry Page and Sergey Brin, perhaps it really was the system: the fertile technical environment, the fertile financial environment, the fertile educational environment, the hard work of many early employees, and so on.

This doesn’t even factor in all the people who were positive influences on the people involved prior to Google’s birth.  For example, their early, key employees were alive, while in other times and places not all of them would have survived to adulthood.  The entire health care system — consisting of surgeons, doctors, epidemiologists, vaccine producers, hospitals, clinics, and insurance bureaucrats — were thus important.  It’s the system.

If the Davos attendees really recognizes the importance of all the other people in any success, and by extension in their success, it would probably be harder for them be comfortable about their wealth and power.


Waiting dogs

Posted in Random thoughts at 9:00 am by ducky

I have been struck and somewhat puzzled by how happy my friends’ dogs have been to see me. My old housemates’ dogs, for example, would get all excited to see me, even after a gap of several years.

I realized last weekend that the dog has no idea where I’ve gone, when I am coming back, or even if I am ever coming back. It must be like someone going off on a sailing ship 200 years ago: no idea where they are, when they will come back, or even if they will come back.


Times they are a-changing

Posted in Politics, Random thoughts at 2:58 pm by ducky

Wow.  Obama announced his six national security advisers today, and white men were in the minority.  Eric Holder and Susan Rice are not white; Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, and Susan Rice are not men.

A few days ago, I read that Condoleeza Rice phoned Barak Obama twice during the Mumbai terrorist attacks and was profoundly moved by the mental image.  It’s not that there haven’t been black people in positions of power before.  I’m sure that Rice phoned General Powell more than once.  (While I dislike almost everything about G. W. Bush, I do have to give him props for not being afraid to appoint people of colour to high positions.)

What struck me was that it was a very powerful black person in one administration phoning a very important black person in the next administration.  This demonstrates that it is not tokenism, nor a fluke of one administration.  It says that having people of colour in positions of high responsibility is not odd or unusual.  And that’s the way it should be.


LOLcats representing the human spirit

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 10:52 am by ducky

A while back, I wrote about LOLcats being a stand-in for ethnic groups, allowing us the humour of shared stereotypes but without having to saddle an ethnic group with those stereotypes.

Jay Dixit has a more expansive, romantic take on it: LOLcats are stand-ins for humans in all their glory and pathos.  By being stand-ins, they are less emotionally dangerous:

By articulating profound feelings through cats and marine mammals speaking garbled English, we’re able to shroud genuine emotions in pseudo-irony — which means those animals can evoke deeper emotions without fear of mockery or cheapness.

I’ll put it more simply: humour is pain at a distance. Using cats (or dogs or walruses) lets us put even more distance between us and the pain. We can thus tolerate situations in LOLcats that would be too painful if it were about humans.

Hmm, I wonder if this is why animated cartoons so frequently starred animals (e.g. Mickey Mouse, Roadrunner, Foghorn Leghorn)…


Vancouver's ambition

Posted in Canadian life, Random thoughts at 10:15 pm by ducky

Paul Graham wrote an interesting essay called Cities and Ambition, in which he put forth the idea that different places had different messages about what was important. He said that in the following places, the following goal was most valued by the community that lived there:

  • New York: being rich
  • Silicon Valley: being powerful (which I would rephrase as “changing the world for the better via technology”)
  • Boston (Cambridge): being smart
  • LA: being famous
  • DC: being connected
  • Berkeley/SF: living better (which I would rephrase as “becoming a better person”)
  • Paris: appreciating art better
  • London: being high-class (aristocratic)

There’s no way you can prove or disprove something as fuzzy and general as this, but it feels correct to me. I remember how right it felt to move back to Silicon Valley from LA. In LA, I was on the sidelines, what I cared about was just not at all what LA was interested in. In Silicon Valley, everything aligned with what I cared about.

I naturally thought about my current home, Vancouver. What does Vancouver say? My immediate thought was that Vancouver tells you that you should have work/life balance.

My friend Michelle Chua has a slightly different take. She thinks that Vancouver tells you that you should have fun.

Michelle pointed out that there were ten game companies within a two-block radius of my house. She thinks that the game and film industry do well here because they are all about having fun, and fun is legitimate here. Interesting.


Good deeds remembered

Posted in Random thoughts, Uncategorized at 11:15 am by ducky

Twenty-five years ago, I was 19 and working in Delft, Netherlands for a summer. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I ran low on cash a week before it was time to go home. This was before ATMs, so it was tricky to get more. There were no places in the Netherlands that would advance me cash on my Visa, but I heard that there was in Brussels.

I took some of my dwindling supply of cash, bought a ticket to Brussels, and discovered that the place I needed to go wasn’t open. (Maybe I had been foolish enough to try on a Sunday? I don’t remember.) Worse, I was about USD$0.50 short of the fare I needed to get back to Delft.  I asked a stranger for 50c, he handed me a buck and I immediately took off to the ticket counter and got a ticket.

When I got my ~50c change, I realized I should have given it back to the stranger.  Ooops.  But he was lost in the crowd, so I instead got myself an ice cream cone — the only food I’d had all day.

I think he spotted me a bit later, eating the ice cream cone.  I was embarrassed to have him see me eating the cone, so I hid my face.  He probably figured that he’d just been had.

So Mr. Stranger?  Whoever you are?  If that was you 25 years ago in August in the main train station in Brussels, I wasn’t a runaway or drug addict or anything — I was exactly who I said I was.  To this day, I remain very grateful for your generosity on that day.  The buck might not have meant a huge amount to you, but it made all the difference in the world to me.  Thank you.

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