I flew down to LA today (SJC -> BUR is the only way to go in my opinion) and spent part of the afternoon watching Jeopardy! with my dad. We got all caught up on this week’s Tournament of Champions and it reminded me of when we used to watch it together. I told him that we used to have our own competitions at home and he would pay me ten cents for every answer that I got right before him. He doesn’t remember this at all. Well, I remember it and it instilled in me a love of trivia and also trivia competitions.

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some thoughts on Interstellar

So I went to go see Interstellar tonight. Oh, SPOILERS throughout, so only read on if you don’t plan on seeing it or don’t care too much about that kind of thing. I normally hate spoilers, but I went into this with the main conceit spoiled and I don’t think it really ruined it, per se. In general, I have really mixed feelings about the movie. There were parts I liked and parts that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at. And it was really long.
Continue reading “some thoughts on Interstellar”

What’s Making Me Happy This Week

One of my favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour (run by the good people at NPR), asks its panelists at the end of each weekly episode to talk about what is making them happy this week. It is a good time to recount some of the things that maybe don’t deserve weekly headlines but are contributing to the overall happiness of the panelist that week. Sometimes it is a book they are reading or a nice thing some stranger did for them.

So here is the list of things that are making me happy this week (in no particular order):
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Playing with the boys

Alternative title: How I became a feminist before I knew that was a thing.

I grew up like a lot of other little girls that were raised in the 80s. I had an American Girl doll (Samantha), I played with LEGO sets, I read all of the Little House on the Prairie books, and watched the Jetsons on Saturday mornings. I took ballet and tap dance classes and piano lessons.

In third grade I started playing soccer. I had to choose between soccer and continuing dance classes and the decision was really easy for me. I loved soccer. It was something I had to work at and practice, unlike school which was very easy for me. Kicking the ball down the field to just the right place for a teammate made me feel very powerful (it still does, actually). I liked being on a team and having a collective goal to work towards. I wanted to play as much as possible.
Continue reading “Playing with the boys”

I’ll do it: NaBloPoMo

So I have neglected this blog quite a bit this year. Well, no more! I’ve decided to take the plunge and do NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month). Each day this month I will publish one post on this blog. Some posts might be long, some might be short, and some might be just a picture or two. But I will do it every day, in the hopes that it helps me stop overanalyzing every thing I might want to put on the blog and just get more writing done.

An incomplete list of possible posts that will likely occur this month: a three (or maybe four) part retelling of my adventure vacation in Chile last year (finally!), pictures from a recent trip to Muir Woods, talking about board games and video games I have been playing lately, why I love David Foster Wallace, what it’s like being a first-time PI on a NSF grant, using R and Shiny to create interactive web apps for data visualization, a recounting of a recent conference I went to in Rotterdam, why playing soccer with the boys in 4th grade was so important to me, and an ode to pizza.

To bide you over until tomorrow’s post, here’s a picture of a 19th century French calculator that will help you determine what time of year it is if you have woken up from a long coma. I saw it while having brunch at Buck’s Restaurant in Woodside after going on a nice hike.
19th century French calculator to help you determine what time of year it is when waking up from a long coma

Dogs in space

Today, November 3rd, is the anniversary of the flight of the first animal to orbit the Earth. It was a Russian dog named Laika aboard Sputnik II in 1957.

Laika in her space harness

(image source:

I always have mixed feelings about this anniversary because the story of Laika is ultimately a sad one, as she survived only about 4-5 hours once in orbit (which was not the original story told). Laika was a friendly stray mixed-breed dog that was trained to withstand the ordeal of flying into space. She was progressively moved into smaller and smaller cages to acclimate her to the small size of the space capsule. She was trained in a centrifuge to withstand the multiple g-force of launch and also experienced weightlessness in her training. She was a very brave dog.

The idea was that the data gained from her “sacrifice” would help scientists better understand how to put humans into orbit and beyond. In the end, they didn’t learn all that much from her short trip into space. It was really more of a propaganda stunt than anything else. The launch was sped up in order to align with a Russian anniversary. If given more time (the appropriate amount of time for that kind of endeavor), more care could have been taken in designing the living compartment for Laika, ensuring that it wouldn’t overheat, and allowing for a return back to Earth.

I named my dog after her partly because I have always been fascinated with space and space flight, but also because the two dogs had a lot in common. They both were mixed-breed dogs, on the small side, that were unwanted (I got my Laika from a shelter). They also both had unusual curly tails (Laiks’s original name was Kudryavka – meaning “little curly”) and expressive ears.

hiking with Laika
me and my Laika

Adopting Laika over four and a half years ago was one of the best things I’ve ever done. She is such a wonderful dog and makes me happy every single day.

The original Laika’s story is sad, but I think that it also helps remind us that sometimes there are trade-offs when we try to do new things. And perhaps it is best to take our time with science, in order to show more care to animals. This doesn’t necessarily mean to not use animals in science, just that we should always weigh the benefits and losses and try to find ways to minimize undue suffering, like Laika’s.

Remembering my uncle Dan

Today was my uncle Dan’s memorial service. He passed away last week, surrounded by his wife, two daughters, and two of his sisters. He was only 50 years old, but when he was originally diagnosed with cancer in 2001, his doctors didn’t think he’d make it to his 40th birthday. Some experimental surgeries by amazing doctors in DC, as well as a fighting spirit and supportive family and friends, made the last 11 years much more than any of us could have hoped for in 2001.

Celebrating Dan’s 50th Birthday

Five days before he passed, we took him to Disneyland for one last trip. Disneyland was an important place for our family, somewhere we frequently went growing up. He really wanted to go one last time, and even though a lot of us felt that it was not a great idea based on his condition (he was dependent on oxygen and not very strong) and the extreme heat that weekend, we went and had a nice and memorable time. And I was able to say goodbye.

One last memorable trip to Disneyland

He did not lose his battle with cancer. If anything, he won. The odds were stacked heavily against him, and yet he fought and suffered and fought some more. He had 11 amazing years with his family, going on trips and making lasting memories. He had 11 years to watch his daughters grow up into beautiful strong young women. He had 11 more years to find fulfillment through his work as a physical therapist. He had 11 years to research, write, and publish a novel based on one of his passions – the U.S. space program (it’s a hypothetical based on the scenario that we could have rescued the Columbia crew and it is a great read).

He was stronger than I can possibly imagine and stronger than anyone should have to be. Yet, he was always joking and smiling and keeping a positive attitude, even up until the end.

I will remember his sense of humor, his love of the space program, and his amazing strength. He will not be forgotten.

Dan with a spoon on his nose

The Beatles & Mad Men

*spoiler alert if you’re not caught up on Mad Men*

Mad Men is a great show. The writing is pretty fantastic and the characters are interesting and engaging. But also, the time period (the 1960s) was a time of great change in the U.S. One of my favorite things about the 60s is the music. Especially the Beatles. The Beatles produced a huge amount of extremely good music in a very short amount of time, a pace that is basically unheard of today. But it wasn’t just the amount of music or the quality of it but also how the music changed during that short period (1963-1970). To go from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in about six years is pretty incredible. Popular music changed dramatically in that time, and even if the Beatles weren’t directly responsible for it, they were definitely the poster band for this change.

The last episode of Mad Men takes place in the summer of 1966 and the Beatles’ Revolver had recently come out. The Beatles had been mentioned many times in the episode (and in a few previous episodes). One of the clients wanted to basically remake the famous chase scene of Hard Days’ Night (a great movie) and needed a non-Beatles song to go in the ad. There was discussion about how it was impossible to get the Beatles to agree to be in a commercial. And it was also clear that Don and the clients still had an idea of what the Beatles sounded like that was still stuck in 1963-1964 (Don, after all, had seen them in Shea Stadium with his daughter when they first came over). They were slowly losing their grasp on what was currently going on in popular culture and weren’t able to keep up. At the end of the episode, Megan tries to help Don by giving him Revolver and tells him to listen to a certain track. And then…amazingly enough… “Tomorrow Never Knows” is playing on my TV. I was kind of shocked that they were able to (a) get the rights to it and (b) afford it. Because I’m sure it wasn’t cheap [I heard some estimates that it was probably around $250,000]. Sure enough, Don can’t stand to listen to the entire song, foreshadowing (I think) his and his generation’s increasing distance from the quickly changing popular culture.

Revolver is one of my favorite Beatles albums. I was reading some stuff on the episode and people inevitably started arguing about what the best Beatles album is. There are four main front-runners: Abbey Road, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, and the White Album (although I’m sure most of those who argue for the White Album realize that half of it is not super amazing). I have been firmly in the Abbey Road camp for some time. But the discussion of Revolver (and listening to it again on Monday) has made me rethink that just a little bit. I think probably I would say they are in a statistical dead heat, with Abbey Road slightly (but not statistically) ahead [nerd alert]. I have never been a huge fan of Sgt. Pepper’s as a whole, even though I really like some of the songs on it. I love the White Album a lot, but there are some days when I wish half of the songs on it didn’t exist so I wouldn’t have to keep skipping them (I’m thinking mostly of “Glass Onion”, “Long, Long, Long”, and “Mother Nature’s Son”). I also really like Let It Be, but most of those songs are just pretty good and not great (with the obvious exception of “Let It Be”).

All of this also started making me re-think one of my favorite lists to make: favorite Beatles songs. So, here is my current list of my favorite Beatles songs, in alphabetical order (because it’s way way too hard to rank them sufficiently):

  • All You Need is Love
  • A Day in the Life
  • Eleanor Rigby
  • The End
  • Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey
  • Got to Get you Into My Life
  • Happiness is a Warm Gun
  • Helter Skelter
  • Here, There and Everywhere
  • Hey Jude
  • Honey Pie
  • I Should Have Known Better
  • I Wanna Hold Your Hand
  • I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
  • I Will
  • I’ll Be Back
  • If I Fell
  • In My Life
  • Let It Be
  • Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
  • Oh! Darling
  • Penny Lane
  • Revolution 1
  • Rocky Raccoon
  • Something
  • Strawberry Fields Forever
  • Tomorrow Never Knows
  • Twist and Shout
  • Two of Us
  • We Can Work it Out
  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  • Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
  • With a Little Help From My Friends
  • You Never Give Me Your Money

Don’t believe everything you hear

Yesterday I saw this BBC video about the McGurk effect. Basically, it’s a phenomenon where your brain interprets sounds differently based on what you are seeing. It’s a really amazing and robust effect, especially since it is not dependent on you not knowing about it.

This reminds me a lot of when I was teaching undergraduate physics labs and we would do the famous ball drop experiment where you would release two balls (same size but different mass) from the same height and see which one hits the ground first. The majority of these intro students would usually predict that the more massive ball would hit the ground first (a common intuition to have). The interesting thing was that a few of these students would still think this after we had done the experiment.

I remember asking some of them why they still thought that the more massive ball hit the ground first. And inevitably, some of them would say, “I heard it hit first.” At the time, this seemed kind of crazy to me because I had been there and heard the two balls hit at the same time and other people in their group had also heard them hit together. But they insisted that they heard a separation.

Later when I started studying science education I learned the name for this phenomenon: theory-laden observations. The students thought that the more massive ball would hit first and this influenced how they took in information and therefore their observation confirmed this idea. However, it seems possible that it might be even more complicated than that. Although the McGurk effect seems primarily to be focused on hearing different phonemes and sounds based on lip movements, it’s possible that the parts of the brain being confused in that area are the same as the ball-drop phenomenon. Students *think* they see the massive ball hit first and therefore *hear* it hit first.


(via kottke)