Sunday, August 28, 2011

Classes Begin

Classes began on the 22nd this week. I'm officially a graduate student! It's weird though, it doesn't yet feel like it. I'm taking classes, just like I did as a senior. I'm teaching labs... just like I did as a senior. It feels more like a continuation of everything I did in undergraduate, just slightly harder, rather than a completely new experience. Is this how it's supposed to go? Maybe the "I'm a graduate student" feeling will catch up to me when I find a research adviser and begin work on my thesis.

In other news, since everyone's back in town, all of the gaming stuff is starting back up again. Last week I hung out with a bunch of old friends from SPS (Society of Physics Students) and played Twilight Imperium. We played for about 10 hours, which included an hour of going over the rules and about half an hour for a dinner break. It looks like a super complex game right when you're starting, but after a while the rules click and you're able to go through turns much faster; part of the reason we played so long was because several of us were first-timers. Also, no one was taking the objective to end the game, so we just kept building armies. Still, very fun. I recommend checking it out if you can get the group and the time.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Qualifying Exam

My friend Tom was puzzled when I described the application process to a graduate program in physics. We send in our application, they look at our application, and they accept or reject us. Then they invite us to open houses so we can decide which of the schools to which we were accepted we'd like to go. Apparently, other programs have interview steps in the middle where they can still reject you based on how you impress them in person.

Nope, we have none of that in physics. Instead, we have a qualifying exam right when we get to school. This exam is basically a souped up version of the Physics GRE, with long-response questions instead of multiple choice, so you're given much harder questions.

The test is given over two days, in two sittings of three hours each. This year, it's Monday 1:30pm-4:30, and Tuesday at the same time. Each day you're given four questions; one mechanics, one E&M, one quantum, and a grab bag question which can be over any of the previous three or something else, like statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, or relativity. The test is there to ensure you've adequately learned everything from your undergraduate career, since people are coming into the program from different schools that might pass you with a slightly different understanding of the material.

You get two official chances to pass the exam before the school starts thinking you're probably not cut out for graduate work; if you fail the first attempt, (Purdue at least has these) there are classes that'll shore up whatever section you really needed help with, in hopes that you'll do better the next time around. You actually get three chances at Purdue, since the first one is a "diagnostic" attempt and so doesn't count if you fail (fortunately, it does count if you pass).

So my past few weeks have been spent reviewing basically everything I can from undergraduate physics. Hopefully I'll pass the first time through, but if not I'm sure I'll get it on chance number two, which would take place in January, after I've had a semester of being back in school and in a physics mindset.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Recipe: Tagarat

Serves: 4
Calories: 1408 total, 352 per serving

1 lb beef (low quality is fine here; we used stew meat cubes here) [760 calories]
1 large yellow onion (vidalia also works well here) [60 calories]
3/4 cup white rice (uncooked, this ends up as more) [480 calories]
3 cloves garlic [12 calories]
3-4 dried chili peppers [6-8 calories]
1/2 cup soy sauce (only about half of this will be consumed) [80 calories, 40 in servings]
1/2 cup white vinegar (only about half of this will be consumed) [16 calores, 8 in servings]
water [0 calories]
1 tsp olive oil [40 calories]

This is a family recipe that my father passed onto his children from his college days. He says one of the best things about it is that it's made with the cheapest ingredients, which keeps it very friendly for those on a tight budget. It's great comfort food when you're feeling sick; if you kick up the amount of pepper, it's great at clearing nasal congestion.

Chop and trim the beef into 1 inch cubes. In a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil, then break the chili peppers open and put the seeds and husks into the oil. Add the beef and start browning it. While the beef is browning, mince the garlic and add it to the skillet. Once you add the garlic, start chopping up the onion. I prefer cutting it into slices (like you're making rings), then cut lengthwise across the rings into a bunch of strips, plus one more slice across the middle so you end up with a bunch of small slices. Immediately add the onions to the pan as soon as they're chopped. Keep browning the meat and cooking the onions until they're nice and carmelized.

Once that's all done, add the soy sauce and vinegar to the skillet, then add water until everything in the skillet is almost completely covered by the liquid. Bring the broth to a light boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, and cover it. Leave it at a simmer for 20 minutes, but check on it occassionally and stir the mixture so the meat and onions on top get mixed under the broth.

While the mixture is simmering, cook the rice. We always used the rice finishing as a timer for when the tagarat was done simmering; in truth, the 20 minutes is more of a guideline to make sure the meat and onions have soaked up enough flavor, and it can take a lot more heat before getting ruined.

Once the rice is finished, divy it up into bowls (deep bowls are best) and ladel the meat and onions on top. Typically, you end up with enough broth to lightly soak the rice as you're moving the meat and onions; you don't want the rice to be swimming in liquid. However, if you want more, feel free to spoon it out, there should be plenty of broth left at the end once all the meat and onions are out.

Remove the chili pepper husks from the dish before eating; they're not bad for you but they've got a weird texture and taste that doesn't go well with the rest of the dish.


When I made this with Jill, we prefaced the dish by sauteeing some green peppers and mushrooms. They added nice color and bulk to the dish without adding a big caloric load. We sauteed them before cooking the rest of the dish and stuck them into the microwave until it was time to serve. Keeping things in the microwave to keep them warm is a neat trick I learned from Jill while staying with her this summer. It has great insulation and no air current moving around inside it, so only a little heat radiates away and whatever you leave in there stays mostly warm.

Incidentally, that's why you should listen when microwave dinners say to cook them for X minutes, then let them sit in the microwave for Y more. They're still cooking during that time since the dish stays very hot until you open the door and let the warm air out.

Back to the tagarat though. Oh man, it was delicious. It had been many months since I'd last enjoyed this dish, since my house at college rarely stocked anything resembling staple ingredients like rice and we never cooked for more than one or two people at a time.

Fortunately for the lonely bachelor, tagarat also keeps amazingly well. Just refridgerate it and then microwave a bowl when you're ready to enjoy again, and it's just as good. So go ahead and make a whole recipe, and keep some on hand for when you want a delicious meal without a bunch of effort.

Just check out this delicious bowl (picture courtesy of Jill at DNA and Dessert):

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Asus Transformer Unboxing

As I'm advancing into graduate school, I realized that the netbook that I had wasn't actually what I wanted to use on campus. It served me very well as an interim computer when the motherboard on my last laptop fried for the third time (and out of warranty on the last time) and the vastly-improved desktop I eventually purchased to replace it. I had an Asus Eee PC 1005-HA, and it served me wonderfully. However, the screen size eventually got to me, since it had a maximum resolution of 1280x600, and required a special netbook-resolution for backgrounds and such. Importantly, many websites are set up with the basic assumption that the user has at least 786 vertical pixels to display, so things end up looking weird.

 So, I replaced it with a tablet. Yes, the screen is still going to be a bit weird. Since the Transformer is a 10.1 in, particularly, it'll be weird since it has a pseudo-widescreen. Yes, typing with the on-screen keyboard is a little weird. However, there are a couple things to counter these (admittedly, fairly big) issues. First, I got the keyboard/docking station, which basically turns the tablet back into a netbook for if I need to use the keyboard for extended typing (it also has a mousepad, but for most things using the touchscreen is actually easier and more intuitive since the OS it set up for that). I've actually typed all of this text so far on the keyboard, with very few mistakes that I could attribute to it's small size. Some of that comes from practice with the netbook, but it also is not a very small keyboard, even for someone with larger hands. However, most of the time I don't need to type a bunch while on campus. I want to be able to read mail and perhaps fire off a quick response, check my Google Reader for what's happening, and perhaps most importantly as I shift more into graduate school, read documents like PDFs. This last aspect is where I feel the tablet will shine best, since it's pretty much all screen and all I need to do is flip between pages to read, for example, a journal article.

So, without further ado, here's the package I got from UPS, freshly opened:

The packaging is really crisp, which lends a nice professionalism about Asus. Other companies have shifted some of their packaging to nondescript recycled brown cardboard with limited printing, and while I am a big fan of the ideas behind this movement and what it represents and applaud these companies, if you're not going to go in that direction then maintaining this level of professional and sharp image is good. 

Here's the opened tablet as it's booting up for the first time. You can see the Android logo - it's running Honeycomb, the tablet-specific version of Android, which has so far been really wonderful and mostly intuitive to use. I've had a few moments, as a long-time iPhone user, where I want to reach for the physical home button on the side, but that's an urge which is fading as I become more familiar with Android OS and the taskbar touch buttons. 

Here's the keyboard docking station in the same color as the tablet. The Transformer was only offered in brown when I ordered it, so I got the brown keyboard as well rather than the slightly more expensive black, despite not being a huge fan of the color. To my delight, it's actualy more of a burnished copper than an actual bronze, and looks really nice on both devices. I also ordered a black folio case for the tablet when I'm using it outside the docking station, and I am also a fan of the black leather color, so it's nice that both options are wonderful. As a warning for other potential buyers, the folio cases don't fit on the tablet when it's docked without significant modification to some of them. The one I purchased can slip into the dock if I undo the strap which holds it into the folio, but the strap lays on top of the keyboard and covers the top two rows of keys in the center. So long as I don't need to use those very often, that isn't a huge issue, but it's something worth considering. When I first tried to dock the tablet, there was a pretty big struggle to get the tablet to dock the first time, since the connections are very precisely arranged; there's hardly any wiggle room. Now that I've docked and undocked it a few times, however, physically aligning the sections is so much easier that I don't even need to think about it anymore. As a final word of advice, be sure to install the firmware update for the keyboard; out of the box mine stayed connected to the tablet for only a few minutes before disconnecting, and I haven't had this issue ever since. 

Finally up and running after I got online and downloaded a couple apps and updates. Everything's running fine and has been wonderful in the days since unpacking and now, when I'm writing this. As a tablet, I've had no complaints with it, and only a few issues with Android as a OS (and all of those are because of applications, not the actual system). 

Now, why do I want this in my future perfect house? 

  • I can bring music, audiobooks, movies, and TV shows with me anywhere in the house, as I do laundry, prepare food, work out, garden, whatever. Certainly a normal laptop could do this as well, but why would I need the whole keyboard out and available the entire time if I'm just watching a show out of the corner of my eye as I chop carrots. I'd much rather just put the screen on a stand (like my folded folio case) and watch it like that, then be able to pick it up and easily move it somewhere else when I finish what I'm doing. Because of it's portability it's easy to keep a bunch of useful apps right at hand in the home. I can have food logs with MyFitnessPal right at hand in the kitchen, in a much more accessible format than a phone application. I can keep recipies on hand and display them on the screen, and, again, keep the keyboard out of the equation. I don't need to type much at that point, and so it'd save valuable space in the kitchen.
  • With devices like Google TV (or Apple TV with a companion iPad), the tablet serves as a giant remote control for entertainment systems. Not only are you way less likely to lose a tablet (particularly if you use it for things other than just a remote), but giving commands to the TV which involve searching for shows or movies by typing out names is orders of magnitude easier when you have a keyboard, even if it's on-screen) rather than arrowing through an on-screen keyboard with the slow-to-respond remote. Want to call up a video on YouTube? Easy when typing the name of the video takes a few seconds rather than a painstaking minute or more, and good luck if you make a typo. 
  •  Remote desktop applications (like TeamViewer, my current favorite particularly because it's free) work wonderfully with the increased screen real estate and let me perform effectively the same functions as I just described above with my desktop, rather than the TV. I can queue up a video on Hulu Desktop and watch it while snuggled up on the couch with my girlfriend rather than getting up to go change the video. I can browse through folders to find the right saved video to watch. I can search YouTube for just the right video and start it remotely in full-screen. 
As applications continue to advance and other technologies integrate better with tablets, I'm pretty sure the advantages to having one around the house will only increase. I'm definitely going to have something like this around in my future dream home. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

One of the Best Pieces of Home Exercise Equipment

A couple of years ago, I got a gift for Christmas from my mother (who, by the way, has been extremely supportive of everything I do with regards to health, and other things). I didn't use it much right after getting it, but eventually dug it out of my closet after living in college for a while and discovered just how amazing it was.

What am I talking about? A pull-up bar. Specifically, I'm talking about the Iron Gym Total Upper Body Workout Bar.
In my old college house, I kept this in the doorway leading to the kitchen from the living room. The frame had a door which slid out but we rarely closed, and the bar was easy enough to duck under any time we wanted to walk into the kitchen.

The real benefit to putting it here is that it's somewhere I'll always see it and run into it. Why is that important? Because it's no use if I don't actually use it. My father once told me a story about how he'd resolved to start doing sit ups, something like 5 to 10 a day. The first few days he tried doing it and it was hard because he'd never really done it before, so he stopped because he could only do one or two, rather than the 10 he wanted. After a few months of not doing several, though, he realized something. Because he could only do one or two, he ended up not doing any, and the result was that he'd ended up doing zero, rather than one each day. Even if he'd only been able to do a few, that was much better than doing nothing.

That's where this bar comes in. When I first got it, I couldn't do a single pull-up. I could only do about five push-ups, and perhaps five sit-ups. So I put it away for a while, and didn't use it until later when my roommate Tom pulled it out and we started competing. Nothing official, but we each knew we wanted to do better than the other person. So I started doing one, and then another one, and a couple hours later perhaps another. Each time we passed into the kitchen we stopped for a couple seconds and did as many pull-ups as we could. This wasn't that many when we started, and my arms definitely felt it each time.

It's worked, however, and that's the important thing. I didn't need to go to a gym, I didn't need to spend hours each day breaking a sweat lifting iron. Half a minute here and there is all it takes. What's your excuse not to now?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Driving on the Highway

Since I drive down to Indianapolis several times a week this summer, I've spent quite a few hours driving on the highway, on I-69 to be precise. I've come to realize a couple things that I wish the other drivers around me knew. Since I can't actually speak to the drivers, I'll say it here. Maybe they'll find it someday.

To the car going under the speed limit and slowly passing cars while in the left lane...
Good job on almost going the speed limit. However, just because you're slowly passing cars doesn't mean you should stay in the passing lane for 20 miles at a time. Those cars behind you? Chances are, they aren't also going the speed limit because they want to, it's because they can't drive right through your car, and the cars in the right lane aren't spaced widely enough apart to pass you.

What's more, no one should need to go into the right lane to pass you. Yes, it's much more convenient to you to never need to change lanes. I promise you, though, if you move over between the two semis that have about three car-lengths between them, I'll accelerate up to the speed I want and pass you. It'll take like 5 seconds; less time than it'll take for you to cover the distance from one truck to the other. Net effect? You turned your wheel slightly right, then slightly left, and end up right where you were before. I'm no longer stuck behind you and can continue on my merry way.

The reason I'm not tailgating you to try to strongly signal that I want to pass you is because that's dangerous to do at high speed, it's kinda a jerk move to do, and it requires way more focus than hanging back. Please don't take the fact that I'm not riding your bumper to mean I'm fine hanging back there as we agonizingly inch past truck after truck. Please pull over into the right lane every now and then so people can pass you.

To the car which pulls out in front of me to pass a truck as I'm quickly about to overtake you both...
Seriously? You couldn't wait 10 more seconds to pull out to save me from having to break? What did you get out of doing this, exactly? You didn't even accelerate very much, if at all. I'm pretty sure I could've passed you before you hit the truck if you'd just kept going. Please just wait a bit longer next time, then pull out behind me.

To the car which brakes to about 50 mph as we pass an accident on the other side of a divided highway...
Stop doing that.You're satisfying some sick voyeuristic urge, and majorly inconveniencing everyone else in your lane, particularly me. You're not going to stop and give them help. You're not putting them in any additional danger by quickly passing - you're a hundred feet away across the meridian. No one's coming near you. No, you just want to see some destruction, some mayhem. Stop it. You'll probably just cause another accident somewhere with some other voyeur who doesn't notice how much you've braked as they're watching, rapt, through their window.

To the car which pull out in front of me as I'm coming up on you and a truck, and you accelerate to quickly pass them then quickly move back to the other lane before I reach your car...
Thank you. You did everything right. Keep on keeping on.

Keep these thoughts in mind as you're driving, and hopefully we'll all get where we're going faster and happier.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mission Statement

One of the problems I've found whenever I undertake a project, particularly one of a creative sort, is that I end up burning out. I'll have a bunch of ideas at the start, and am full of drive to do big things, but eventually that drive peters out, and I'll get caught up in other things, and eventually the old project will fall apart.

So, that's why this blog is starting with a mission statement. I'm going to lay out exactly what I'm going to be doing with it so that I'll have some clarity and direction when writing future posts. While of course some of this stuff might change as I go along, the core ideas will all be there.

I'm making a promise to myself now to produce at least one blog entry each week. While I'll certainly try to produce more content than this minimum, spread between all of the categories mentioned below, I'm going to write at least this much about something. Hope you enjoy it.

Core - Fantasy and Roleplaying
I'll admit, one of the big reasons this is the core for the blog is that I feel like it'll be easiest to write on. I've read a lot of other blogs and feed about roleplaying games, and feel like I can contribute as well. Entries into this category will take several forms:

  • Session Summaries: I'm involved in several games at the moment (one Pathfinder, one 4e D&D, and one in a custom setting using rules hijacked from White Wolf's Exalted), and will summarize the events happening in each game in a narrative format, providing commentary as a player and as a GM on the situations that arise.
  • Character Bios: Backstories and character sketches for different characters that I come up with. These characters can be ones I'm using, or planning to use, in one of my games, or one I'm planning to feature in a short story or novel chapter (see below), or simply a cool character idea I wanted to get on paper and share with everyone.
  • Stories: Scenes, complete short stories, or chapters from longer works that I'm playing around with in my head. These will often feature characters mentioned in the character bios and be pretty much exclusively fantasy works.
  • Setting Information: Places, organizations, historical events, and the like. Building a setting for my custom world and putting it somewhere. Most of the entries can be made to fit into a different setting without too much effort, however.

Secondary - Science
As a PhD candidate in Physics, I get exposed to some interesting scientific ideas. In addition, I Stumble through pretty much every scientific topic they offer, and come across dozens of press releases describing interesting results. I'll share those I find particularly interesting, either from a purely scientific perspective or from the perspective of the implications of the discovery.

In addition, as a hopeful future teacher and current teaching assistant, I'll occasionally feature an article attempting to teach some aspect of physics. These will likely be out of order at first, though after writing several of these they could be strung together into a coherent lesson plan, hopefully. I've always found the best way to understand something is to make sure you can clearly teach someone else it.

Secondary - Health, Food and Exercise
I've been on a recent health and exercise kick, with good results. One of the biggest indicators of future success in diet or exercise is keeping logs, keeping yourself accountable, and sharing your success with others. I'll share tips for healthy living, easy-to-make delicious meals, and fitness information.

Secondary - Better World, Better People
I've discussed philosophy at length with my friend Tom, as well as bits and pieces here and there with other people. While I'm not going to claim to be an expert on what to do in every situation, I'm struck now and then by thoughts which I feel need sharing, with the hope that if enough people hear them and take them to heart, then the world would have a couple fewer problems in it. These typically aren't huge things, but things I don't think most people think about and would agree would be better if they changed.

Small steps. Saving the world comes later.

Tertiary - Things I'd Like in My House
I'm subscribed to a number of different topics on StumbleUpon which give future tech ideas. Lots of these are ways to improve life in the house, increase efficiency and savings, and generally make the house better.

While I've been mentally keeping a list of these ideas in my head, it'd be nice to have a single place to look back to when I want to find them again, years down the road, when I'm finally at a place in my life where I can build a dream home.

Of course, it's even better to share these ideas with other people, for a variety of reasons. First, many of them simply make the world a better place by getting rid of something wasteful or inefficient, or making things nicer for little extra cost (though this cost is likely much higher if you're trying to retrofit a home with the idea rather than putting it into the structure when it's first made). Second, if many people hop on the bandwagon and ask for these features, they'll start to become mainstream, more people will figure out how to build them or improve them, and the price will come down by the time I actually want to use it.

So, feel free to steal any of these ideas for your own home, or share them with friends looking to get their own houses.