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July 7, 2009

Back From Alaska

I just returned this week from my awesome vacation in Alaska. It is one of the most amazing places I have visited. Its spectacular scenery makes you feel like you are in a postcard the whole time. I will post some pictures as soon as I sort through the thousands (literally) of pictures that my wife and my mother took.

Meanwhile, here are some of the cool things I did at Alaska:
- Train riding
- Biking
- Paragliding
- Glacier hiking
- Cruising
- Rafting
- Zip lining

June 21, 2009

Way Up North

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I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. Since it is getting warmer and that would just feel too comfortable, I am going up north to Alaska, where it is still somewhat chilly. Nothing fits better together than cruises and sweaters.

May 16, 2009

Real-Life Superheroes

Hard to believe as it may be, there are actually people who go out as masked heroes and try to fight crime. Reminds me a lot of Watchmen. Read more about it in the articles Cincinnati Patrolled By Real-Life Superheroes. What Could Possibly Go Wrong? and The Legend of Master Legend. The "Consortium of Evil" (yes, it exists) had even posted a Craiglist ad (which seems to have been taken down) offering a $10 bounty for the identity of Shadowhare. If you were a real-life superhero, what name would you go by? Something with the words Panda or Ninja would probably cut it for me.

March 29, 2009

Stuff Tales

An important message, brought to you in a nice mix of video recordings and flash animations and interactions.

Story of Stuff

Thanks to Lidia for the link!

March 25, 2009

Just One More

I just want to congratulate Japan and Korea on such an epic championship game. It was intense, going up to 10 innings. Both teams played an excellent game.

I am really happy to see Asia dominating this sport. Both teams only lost to each other throughout the tournament. There is one reason why they constantly outperform western countries. Their players play for their team and not for themselves. I'm not saying that other players from other countries don't care about their teams. But they are still more focused on helping by hitting the awesome homer than by playing what the team really needs, even if it's small. I think there is a lot that we can learn from this attitude.

So what did you enjoy from the World Baseball Classic (if you watched it)? Also, should I start thinking about adding a Sports category to the blog posts? (Although maybe now I will be quiet on the topic for a while.)

March 17, 2009

Moment of Silence

A moment of silence for Puerto Rico's loss and elimination from the World Baseball Classic. Once again, they fall short of advancing to the semifinal by one run.

March 15, 2009

One of Those Rare Sports Rants

I take a break from my normal blogging topics to express how excited I am with the World Baseball Classic. I especially enjoy seeing the Puerto Rican team go undefeated until now. They have allowed only 2 runs in 4 games, the last one being an 11-1 win against the US. Being a territory of the US, there is probably no other team that we enjoy winning against the most. In 2006, Puerto Rico didn't make it to the semifinals. If they win tomorrow's game against Venezuela, they are guaranteed a semifinals spot. I hope they make it!

March 1, 2009

JLPT Level 4 Results

My results for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, Level 4, arrived in the mail this past week. I am happy to say that I passed the test with 85.5% (60% was required to pass). I did excellent in the writing-vocabulary section (98%) and not so good in the listening section (76%). This is really good motivation to start getting ready for Level 3 this December. Gambarimasu! (I'll do my best)

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February 19, 2009

Feeling Appreciated

Recently, I met a Korean and a Chinese who can speak Spanish. (I also know a Japanese who is taking Spanish). This has been somewhat surprising for me, since it is something that is not very common to see here in Minnesota. Most foreigners are still trying to tackle English, so very few of them go for a third language.

So when I met these people who can speak Spanish, I felt a sudden sense of appreciation. They are taking the time to learn about my culture and my language. I feel that my culture is important to them. It is amazing how a simple thing as learning a language can accomplish so much and shorten the gap between people of different backgrounds.

I hope to someday let them know they are appreciated too and learn some Chinese and Korean. But for now, I hope a simple "Thank you" can suffice.

February 12, 2009

Essential Stupidity

My wife shared an article with me today which I greatly enjoyed. The importance of stupidity in scientific research is a convincing argument by Martin A. Schwartz on why feeling stupid can be a good sign, especially when you are trying to work on a PhD. We are often trained so much to try to feel smart, that we forget that relative to all possible knowledge in this world, we will always be stupid. Enjoy the article!

February 7, 2009

The Coolest Super Powers

Michael Sherrin wrote a series of posts at his blog, Prodigeek, where he listed what he thinks are the 28 coolest superpowers. I think he got most of the important ones, although I don't completely agree with the rankings. His top three superpowers were:

1) Telekinesis
2) Telepathy
3) Super speed

My top three would have been:

1) Control Machines - I can't help it. I'm a computer scientist. This would make my life way easier.
2) Telepathy - This would provide endless hours of entertainment. (We did agree on this one.)
3) Shapeshift - Excellent way to hide acne.

You can look at the whole list by following these links:
28-22
21-15
14-8
7-1

So what are your favorite super powers?

January 27, 2009

Archiving Our Lives Vs. Living Them

Read/Write Web has a great article by Sarah Perez titled "Technology is Great, but Are We Forgetting to Live?". I think it is very important to understand that we do not have to take every picture, record every moment, instant message every occurrence. Sometimes we just have to enjoy the moment and forget about technology. If not, we may just end up looking at our own life through a "glass".

January 24, 2009

About Humility

A quick quote.

Humility doesn't mean you think less of yourself but that you think of yourself less.

Something to keep in mind in a world where pride seems to play such a big role.

December 23, 2008

To Warmer Weather

I'm taking a plane to Puerto Rico today (I hope it doesn't get delayed with all the snow). I will try to keep blogging from there, but my posting frequency might be reduced as I spend some time with my family. I hope you all have a great Chirstmas!

December 9, 2008

Taking the JLPT

On Saturday night, I took the overnight bus from Minneapolis to Chicago in order to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. The ride was smooth, as long as you skip the part about me hitting my head against the bathroom door and ending up with a cut and a bump on my head. The bus arrived an hour earlier at the Union Station in Chicago. So there I was at 5:30 am and at 11 F and only a vague idea of where to go. When I finally got to the train station a few blocks away, I was told that the first train did not leave until around 7:20am. And you can imagine how many places are open at 6am on Sunday where you can just go and escape the cold. Thank God for a nearby McDonalds that had just opened.

I was the first test-taker to arrive at the test location. Only one of the test proctors had arrived when I got there. I had quite a few hours to study before the test. In that time, I met a Puerto Rican security guard (very nice guy!) and a Taiwanese grad student from Illinois who was taking level 1 (the hardest!). Finally, the time came for the exam.

I have to admit it was harder than I thought (mostly because I did not do a good job of reviewing my grammar and concentrated too much on vocabulary). And as expected, the listening part was very stressful for me. Still, I think I did well enough to manage the 60% needed to pass the test. I'll let you know as soon as I get the test results.

I came back really excited. I want to start preparing for level 3 as soon as possible. I'm even trying to form a study group together with one of my labmates who is also interested in taking the test. Hopefully next year I won't have to go alone and on two overnight buses!

If you still don't understand what the JLPT is or why I went through all that trouble to take it, please leave a comment! コメント????も大好????よ?

December 6, 2008

JLPT, Here I Come!

I am taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this Sunday. I'll be taking the overnight bus to Chicago on Saturday night. Hopefully, it will be a bit warmer over there. I am taking level 4 of the test, which is the easiest level. Wish me luck!

November 17, 2008

What Is Best vs. What Is Best For Me

How many times have you found yourself looking at lists of "Top 10 Movies" or listening to the "Top 20 Music Countdown" in your local radio station? How often do you ask your friends which is the best restaurant in town, what video game is a must or what is the best way to lose weight?

We are all used to trying to search for what is best. But with the rise of the Internet, a new set of questions have begun to arise. What movie would I like better? What music fits my tastes? What restaurant fits my budget? What is the best way for my body to lose weight? Actually, these aren't new questions. They are old ones that now have a place to find their answers. The Internet has become full of recommendation services. These try to match users with what fits them best. This is very closely related to what is known as the Long Tail.

If you look at it in terms of a movie store, there are a few movies that almost everybody loves and buys. These are the blockbuster hits. Then there are the movies that not many people watch. But the number of movies in this category is way bigger than the number of blockbuster hits. These movies make up the long tail. You probably won't find these movies being advertised heavily, as only a handful of people are interested in them. But for this handful of people those movies may be their number one movies. Those movies are not what is best, but are what is best for them.

Will people then stop focusing on what is best for everyone and only focus on what is best for them? Not entirely. Both ends of the spectrum are important. There will always be a book that everyone should read. There are always health tips that apply to everyone. But with personalization, instead of invalidating what is best for everyone, we can make it better, complement it. You will be able to know what CD's to listen to first and where to go from there. That is, after all, what many recommendation sites do. Based on your ratings of popular items, they can guess your preference of less popular items.

It's good to know that in today's society we can find both: what is best for everyone and what is best for me.

November 4, 2008

May the Best Man Win

Today I voted in the US for the first time. In Puerto Rico, we only get to vote for governor, so it was an interesting experience being able to vote for president too. The weather was great for voting too, with a high of about 70 degrees (we don't get many of those in November). I have always had a non-partisan attitude towards politics, so it was a tough decision for me. But now, all we have to do is wait. May the best man win!

October 16, 2008

A Video About Puerto Rico That Will Make You Want to Take a Vacation Right Now

I must admit I am very biased. But I really do believe that Puerto Rico is a great vacation spot. And this is the best video I've found about tourism in Puerto Rico. So don't think about it anymore. Make Puerto Rico the destination for your next vacation. Enjoy the video!

October 13, 2008

Puerto Rico Islanders Almost Get There

Once again, I will diverge from the normal blog topics to talk about my favorite sports team (the only one from my country to be in the same league as one from Minnesota, where I currently reside). Yesterday I watched the USL (United Soccer League) championship game on TV. The Puerto Rico Islanders made it to the finals for the first time in their short 5-year history. It was an intense game, which ended 2-1 with the Vancouver Whitecaps winning.

They did not win, but I am still proud of them. They finished first in the regular season and were awarded with MVP, Coach of the Year, and Defender of the Year. This has been their best season yet. And I can't wait to watch them come play against the Minnesota Thunder again next year! Congratulations, Puerto Rico Islanders!

P.S. If anyone wants to send me a Puerto Rico Islanders jersey, by all means go ahead!

(Now back to our regular programming.)

September 27, 2008

Japanese Challenge!

I have registered to take the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) this December. I'm taking Level 4, the easiest level (I'm still not that good).

Recently, I've been making many Japanese friends and getting more involved with the Japanese community in general. I've taken Japanese tutoring, hosted a Japanese student, sometimes visit the Japanese service at the church I attend, and started attending events of the Japanese student association at my university.

All of this has gotten me excited and re-energized to continue my study of the language. And so, my first challenge is to pass this JLPT test. If I do good this year, I'll take the next level (Level 3) next year. I only hope I can find time to study for the test in the midst of my TA, RA, and wonderful classes. Let's see how it goes! Gambarimasu! (I'll do my best!)

August 27, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 7

What I really like about computers is the people

Sounds strange doesn't it? My research interests have actually changed since I entered grad school. I came in looking to work on artificial intelligence projects. And I'm still interested in Artificial Intelligence, but there is one area of computer science which I am finding that I am much more passionate about.

This area is HCI, Human-Computer Interaction. In the end, computers are really always about people. That's what they were designed for. To help us. So it's not strange to have an area of computer science devoted entirely to finding out how humans interact with computers.

This includes a multitude of areas, some of which are user interface design (we have to know how users to think to design easy-to-use interfaces) and online communities (users interacting socially, but across the internet). When I come to think of it, what I liked about Artificial Intelligence was also the human side (how to make computers think like humans).

Thanks to this PhD experience, I have found an area within computer science which I am really passionate about and really enjoy. And hopefully, I'll be able to share more of what I learn with all of you in the future. This is all I have for this week, but there are many more things I have learned and will keep learning. Feel free to ask any other questions you might have about my experience as a graduate student. Thanks for reading!

August 26, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 6

Multiculturalism Rocks!

One of the downsides of studying in Puerto Rico was that 95% of the students were Puerto Rican. There isn't really a big international presence in Puerto Rico (except maybe for Chinese, by the looks of the amount of Chinese restaurants that exist).

Here in grad school in Minnesota, I get to interact with people from all over the world. I have made friends from China, India, Argentina, Japan, Mexico, and more. I even got to host a student from Japan.

The experiences you can gather and the amount of things you can learn while working with people from different cultures and backgrounds are just immense. It really makes life, and my PhD, more colorful and enjoyable.

August 25, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 5

It is possible to be a married graduate student

It is not only possible, it's great. Especially if your wife is also a graduate student.

Although financially it can be a bit tight, when both are students you can have someone who can relate to your woes and troubles. And even if your spouse is not a student, it is just nice to have some company, since being a grad student can get lonely at times.

In other words, I've learned that my life as a grad student (and my life in general) has been more enjoyable thanks to my wife.

August 24, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 4

Reading Research Papers

One thing I have done more in this year alone than ever before is reading research papers. I have read dozens of research papers on topics such as data mining, human-computer interaction, and even some on psychology. I have learned how to analyze, understand, and even criticize papers.

I have learned that there are actually many bad papers out there. Lots of poorly done research exists. The hard task is finding the good papers. If you do find them, they can really be worth the read. This is where much of the really innovative stuff is at. Most new technologies that you see appearing in the market today probably appeared in research papers that are 10 years old.

In an effort to get some of you interested in research papers, I had a week devoted entirely to HCI research papers (together with comic strips about the topics). Hopefully, I can continue to understand the world of research papers. This is an area where I have learned a lot, but still have a long way to go. Someday, I will even have to write a few myself. So this is one learning experience that I will definitely value.

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 3

Grad students really have to love what they do

Many of my undergraduate classmates went straight to full-time jobs. And I think most of them are probably earning two to three times what I earn as a graduate student. Knowing that, I realize that I have to be really passionate about my PhD area to be crazy enough to pursue it.

Of course, there is some reputation that comes along with completing a PhD degree, but the sacrifices are many. Low income, endless research, and exams, to mention just a few. But when you really love what you do, it's all worth it. I may not earn as much as my contemporaries, but the experience is an invaluable one.

August 22, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 2

Yesterday I talked about how I learned during this last year how much I don't know yet. Today's topic is:

Being on the teaching side

This year I learned what it feels like to teach. I graded, held office hours, was in charge of a lab, and even gave three lectures. It's definitely a different feeling than being a student. It makes you appreciate more what professors and teaching assistants do.

Grading can be especially tiresome. And trying to keep everyone's attention while giving the lecture is a physical impossibility. But when one student writes in the class evaluation that the TA was probably the best he/she ever had, it makes it all worth it.

I may not become a professor after I graduate, but I don't rule out teaching completely. And the group management and oratory skills acquired during this experience (and during the TA I will be doing this next year) will definitely help me in the future. So, being a TA has been one of the best new learning experiences I've had this last year.

August 21, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 1

This day, exactly one year ago, my wife and I arrived at Minnesota. Our lives as residents of this cold state and as graduates students began. Today I look back at myself one year ago and boy have things changed. I have had many enriching experiences throughout my first year as a PhD student. And I would like to share some of them with you. So let's get right to it:

I learned how little I really know

I thought I learned a lot as an undergrad. After all, I worked on many class projects and even did a few internships with IBM. Surely I was ready to survive in the real world. And yes, I know that I could have survived. But oh how much I would have missed.

I have learned so much in this past year that I feel like going straight to the workplace would have left me doing something I didn't really like. The first reason is because I actually discovered that there was another area in computers that I was more passionate about (but I'll talk more about that in another post). My research and classes have also taught me a lot: how to design usable interfaces, what HCI is all about, how to work with lots of data (data mining), a few extra programming languages (Javascript, Adobe Flex, LISP - yuck, python, etc.), and more.

While working on Cyclopath, I have also come to realize how inefficient my programming skills really are. I have always thought of myself as a good programmer, capable of adapting to many programming languages and solving complex problems. But I have realized that my coding style really needs a lot of work. I have an excellent project leader who gives me a lot of feedback after every piece of code I submit. The first time, it took me a while to swallow. But now I see it as opportunities to perfect my programming skills.

One of my goals after finsihing my PhD is to start my own project or even company. For that, I believe that efficient coding skills and solid knowledge of computer science is essential. That is why I know this PhD is not a waste of time. This first year alone has taught me how little I really know and how much is left.

August 20, 2008

Was the Empire Really That Evil?

Even if you're not a big fan of Star Wars, this article is a fun read. It argues that the Empire was not as evil as the movies made it seem. It's fun to see people debating about worlds and characters that don't exist (and this goes beyond nerds, I had to read a few essays of this type about Shakespeare's characters). Read "The Case for the Empire" here.

August 17, 2008

Still Here

Quick post to let you all know I'm still here. I have had a busy, but fun, weekend which included canoeing, volleyball, picnics, a big Puerto Rican party, and a lot of biking. Hopefully, I will post again tomorrow. Hope you all had a great weekend! Remember to follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/FernandoPR.

August 14, 2008

The Ugly Bike Shop

Today we set out to find a seat for a used bike we bought recently. At the first bike shop we went to, the clerk recommended an alternative shop were we could find the needed parts for very cheap. It is a shop operated by volunteers with used parts which are mostly donated. The idea is awesome. A very cheap store run by bike enthusiasts which are, by the way, very helpful.

Unfortunately, the execution was poor. The place was very run down. People were smoking and drinking everywhere. Not a family-friendly place for sure. So, although the idea was great and the people helpful, this was not a place where we felt comfortable. And that drove us away.

How many websites have you seen or heard of on the internet where the idea is great, but the execution just leaves you uncomfortable? The navigation is confusing, the design is poor, the ads are offensive. There are countless ways to make a good idea suck.

Many great products out there are just old ideas with great design. So pay attention not only to how good your idea is, but also to how well it is implemented.

August 11, 2008

Google Makes Mistakes

Today, Gmail suffered a pretty big outage. People all around the world were really affected by this, especially those that use Gmail for business purposes too. I was in the middle of sending an email when this happened. The almighty Google made a mistake.

Of course, the king of outages is Twitter. But you know what? People still use Twitter. And people won't stop using Gmail just because of today's outage. Because these are tools that people value.

Think about what you are working on. Is it something people will value? Then don't be afraid to make mistakes.

I was watching Batman Begins today and the phrase that stuck with me was: "Do you know why we fall? So that we learn to pick ourselves up".

Make mistakes. Pick yourself up. Learn from it. Create something of value.

August 8, 2008

Visit Visit the Coqui

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Just to let you know, I did not make an error in this post's title. I'm talking about a blog named Visit the Coqui.

If you're a regular reader of this blog (or of my Twitter feed), you'll know that one of my favorite off-topic topics is Puerto Rico, my home country. I'd love it if everyone visited that tiny little island at least once in their lifetimes. That's where Visit the Coqui comes in. This blog is a great source for anyone planning or even just dreaming of visiting Puerto Rico some day. I sometimes find activities to do in Puerto Rico that I never even knew could be done there.

If you want to know where to start, I recommend this post, which has a collection of some of the top articles in the blog. Go ahead. Take a look. You'll want to book your vacation right now. (Especially after looking at the mouth-watering picture form my last visit to Puerto Rico below.)

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August 3, 2008

Japanese Exchange Student is Here!

The Japanese student that will be staying home for three weeks just arrived yesterday! My wife and I are very excited. For that reason, we may be a bit busier, but we're sure it will be a lot of fun (and I'll keep posting on the blog!). ???も?れ???

July 31, 2008

Going Against The Flow

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Last Sunday, I went with my wife, her mother, and her brother to a soccer game. We were excited because the visiting team was from our home country. The Puerto Rico Islanders had come to play a match against the Minnesota Thunder. And we were the only ones there to cheer for them.

By the end of the first half, Puerto Rico was losing 2-0. All you could hear was the heckling from the Minnesota supporters (which were concentrated not far from where we sat). We started to wonder if coming to the game was worth it. Our team was losing and everybody else's was winning.

Sometimes, that's how we feel when we undertake a project or start working towards our goals. Although it's perfectly rational to do what we're doing, it's not what most people are doing. It's a risk we take. But you know what? If you do make it, if you do win, you win a lot more than anybody else. The Puerto Rico Islanders won the game 3-2 with a spectacular second half. And we were happier than everybody else in that stadium. We took a risk by going against the flow, but in the end the rewards were great.

We can choose to always play it safe. We can choose to do what everybody else is doing, to do what we know already works. Or we can take a risk. What will you do?

July 20, 2008

Summer Guests

It's been more than one year since my wife and I got married and moved to the United States. And about 11 months ago, we moved to Minnesota. We come from the small island of Puerto Rico. Although Puerto Rico houses around four million inhabitants, it doesn't matter where in the island you are, you are always at less than four hours from anybody else. So there is always a lot of family stuff happening. Always a birthday, a party, or just a good dinner to attend to.

Here in Minnesota, we have no relatives for miles (the closest live in New York). So after one year of being away, you kind of start missing them (even your sisters!). That is why we have turned our second room into a half guest room. And we're having a lot of people over this summer. My two younger sisters came for a week. My mother- and brother-in-law are coming tomorrow for two weeks. The day after they leave, we will be hosting a Japanese student for three weeks. After she leaves (they just keep coming!) we will be hosting a Chinese student for one or two weeks.

We will be a lot busier with more people in the house, but it sure is fun. It is always a joy to live out that famous phrase: "Mi casa es tu casa" (my house is your house). Hopefully I can extend some of that to this blog. I hope my readers can feel at home (and feel free to comment!). Thanks for all of your visits. They always make my day!

July 15, 2008

Oh No! I'm Actually Gonna Talk About Sports

This blog really has nothing to do with sports, so I usually don't include them in my blog posts (not that I follow sports that much anyway). But I'm just excited because in less than two weeks the Puerto Rican soccer team (Puerto Rico Islanders) is coming here to Minnesota to play against the Minnesota Thunder. In just a few weeks, the Islanders have come from approximately the ninth position to the second position in overall standings in the United Soccer Leagues. I'll probably be the only one rooting for the visiting team, but I hope they play well when they come.

Okay, I got that off my mind. Now I can return to regular, geeky blogging.

June 26, 2008

Joining a New Lab

As part of my transition to a new lab, I have finally started working with them on a project. I still officially belong to the Data Mining Lab (at least through the rest of the summer), but it is exciting to start getting involved with the new lab. As a result, I have two desks in two different offices (about a 30-second walk from each other). I work mornings at one desk and afternoons at the other.

The lab I'm joining is called GroupLens. They do excellent research in the areas of recommender systems, online communities and local geographic information systems. They are the owners of MovieLens, a movie recommendation site where a lot of their research on recommender systems goes on. It is an excellent research group with excellent advisors. I will be working with them on a wiki-related project. I will probably talk about that project more in the future (I think I'll be working there for a long while).

I'll be taking a small vacation this weekend to visit Mt Rushmore with my sisters, who are visiting from Puerto Rico, so no more updates until early next week. Some interesting content is coming up some time next week, so stay tuned!

June 23, 2008

This Is What Happens When You Buy at IKEA

We may think we're special when we buy furniture at IKEA. We may think that we're smart and unique. But all that goes away when we're watching TV and we see the same cushions we bought at IKEA on the set of a show.

Our living room sofa:

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Two scenes from the most recent episode of The Big Bang Theory (sorry for the weird subtitles):

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And it doesn't stop there. A new expansion pack is coming out for the Sims 2 which features furniture from IKEA. And guess whose furniture appear on the front cover?

This is our bed and drawers:

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And this is the cover for the new Sims 2 expansion pack (a bit small, but you can see the same bed and the same chest except with three drawers instead of four):

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So either everyone is as cheap as us or everyone has as good tastes as we do. I'm hoping it's the latter. On the plus side, now we can buy Sims 2 and play around with all possible room rearrangements without having to buy anything at the real store.

June 10, 2008

Japanese Lessons

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I am sort of a language freak. Every time I hear someone speaking in another language, I start thinking, "How hard would it be to learn that language?". I had one such moment about three and a half years ago. I decided I wanted to learn Japanese, initially so I could play all those Japan-only games that never got to the US. I've had my moments of cramming and my moments of forgetting it, but after this much time I have really come to like the language. It is a beautiful language with lots of drawings (Kanji), which is really fun for artist-wannabes such as myself. I had the opportunity to go to Japan about two years ago and had one of the best experiences of my life.

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So in preparation for my next visit, I have decided to start taking Japanese classes with a tutor. When reading, I am basically a very advanced beginner, but when trying to actually have a conversation I forget every grammar rule I know. So now I'm trying to work mostly on my conversation skills and also on getting better at reading (especially Kanji). My wife is also taking classes with the same tutor, so that makes it all the more fun.

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Hopefully next time I go to Japan, I will be able to not only ask questions, but this time to actually understand the answers. I leave you with a short essay I had to write as homework for the last lesson. (Don't trust Google Translate's translation, by the way).

二週間????アイロンマン?映画を見???。凄?映画??????。主人公?始????も利己的?人???。後??悪?人?主人公?作??武器を使??????。??ら主人公?アイロンマン??り???。?????武器を破り???。

May 29, 2008

Back in Minnesota and With a Lot of Facebook Friends

I just got back from the Bahamas yesterday, so it's back to a more regular blogging schedule. I am still starting to work myself into online communities, but at least on Facebook I'm not doing too bad. I just reached 500 friends. And I am proud to say that there are only 6 of them that I do not know personally. Not too bad for a geek such as myself! I hope I can say that someday about the number of daily readers of my blog! Thanks for reading and stay tuned for a themed week coming up soon.

May 23, 2008

Short Vacation

This weekend I will not be making any posts. Actually, I probably won't write anything until next Wednesday or Thursday. The reason for this? I am celebrating my one-year wedding anniversary in the Bahamas! It will be nice to go back to a tropical island setting at least for a little while. Meanwhile, if you're new to the site, I recommend you browse through the archives. The 100th post on April 30th also has a good list of old posts to read. Thanks to all of those who read my blog and I hope to bring new content sometime next week.

May 17, 2008

Imagine Cup Second Round Update

Unfortunately, I did not make it to the third round of Imagine Cup's Algorithm Competition. I must admit, I did not dedicate as much time to it as I would have wanted (mostly due to my HCI project). But still, I tried and I had fun. Hopefully next year I will do better. I certainly did a lot better this year than last year. And now that I have taken an advanced algorithms class, I will feel a lot more prepared.

Going a little off-topic, some comments have been getting tagged automatically as junk comments. I have no idea why this has happened with comments that seem normal enough and from people who have commented many times before. So I'm sorry if your comment did not appear right after you submitted it. I will be on the lookout for any other comments that get sent to the junk folder.

May 14, 2008

Pleasant Surprise

I had planned to write a post yesterday night, but a pleasant surprise kept me from doing so. I was invited by a neighbor to play a little Rock Band (which was very fun!). My wife then calls me on the phone due to a supposed emergency. When I get back home, there were a bunch of my friends ready to sing Happy Birthday.

I really had a great time. If I remember right, it's my first surprise birthday party. The funny thing is that, besides my wife, every other friend there I've made over the past year. So I want to take this blog post to just say that I am grateful to God for the friends I've been making here in Minnesota. I really enjoy their international flavor too. I've made friends from Japan, China, India, Mexico, Argentina, Puerto Rico (my home country), and from of course, here in the US. It's not very often that you meet such a great group of people. Thanks to all of you, those who were able to attend and enjoy the good food and those weren't able to attend but still wished me a happy birthday.

I can't forget to thank my family too! Although they are very far away, they also conspired to get me something I've been wanting for some time: a Nintendo DS! It seems like I will be having a fun summer.

April 21, 2008

In the Zune...

I couldn't resist the horrible pun in the title. I am just too excited with my early birthday gift. My wife gave me a Zune mp3 player. Now, why not an iPod? The thing is that I specifically asked for a non-iPod mp3 player. I'm still not completely sure why I prefer a Zune to an iPod, but here are some possibilities:

- Everyone has an iPod. It's too common. And when people get stuff just because everyone else has it, then it just makes me want to get it less. I guess growing up in the non-popular crowd does that to you. (There are some exceptions of course, such as food).

- For some reason, I don't like the wheel thingy used for navigation in the iPods. I am happy with clicking up, down, left, and right.

- Some people don't get Zunes just because they love to hate Microsoft. And of course, Microsoft is made for just that. But still, no matter how much we love to hate it, we must admit that many of their products are actually good and that they've made some very neat advances in the field.

- Apple is an awesome company, but for some reason I've never considered myself an Apple guy. That would probably change if I got an iPhone, but meanwhile, I'll just keep being a non-Apple guy.

Regardless of the mixed reviews the Zune has received, I have found it to be a fine piece of hardware. Some features are nonintuitive the first time you use it, but become quite easy to use afterwards. I am happy with my new toy and expect to catch up with WebbAlert, now that I can watch it on the go!

April 11, 2008

On Which Side of the Sidewalk Do You Walk?

Have you ever noticed how people in the U.S. tend to walk on the right side of the sidewalk? Just as if they were driving (which you have to do on the right side of the road in the U.S.), people tend to use the right side of the sidewalk. Doing so helps somewhat in avoiding collisions. But, exactly why does this happen? Under what conditions? Is it really statistically significant or are my observations just not accurate enough? This would make for some interesting research.

Doing a quick search on Google Scholar, the most similar research paper I found was one from 1975 where they studied how people tended to avoid certain types of people as they walked. The paper, which is "Beauty is Power: The Use of Space on the Sidewalk" by James Dabbs and Neil Stokes, found that walkers deviated from their path to stay farther away from a male than a female, farther from two people than one person, and farther from a beautiful woman than an unattractive one. Their theory was that beauty, number, and sex were aspects of power which served to dominate various amounts of space.

So, in their case, users adapted what they understood as power to their walking habits, most probably not even being aware of such actions. As for walking on the right side of the sidewalk, what motivates this behavior? Is it because we are used to driving on the right side of the road? I believe this is the reason. When people don't have a set of rules for a setting, they apply the most similar ones they know. In the case of walking, the most similar situation to moving and avoiding collisions for which people have any rules is driving. Therefore, they apply their rule of using the right side to avoid collisions to walking.

Many more research questions can be asked about this. Does the pattern change when the number of people changes? Do different types of people exhibit different behaviors (such as left-handed people)? Does this behavior change in countries where people drive on the left side of the road? And, moving to the area that I like more, does this have any design implications for programmers? I know that question may seem like a long shot, but if it is true that when lacking a set of rules people use the most applicable ones in their repertoire, then we can use this knowledge to predict or at least study better the actions of users on unfamiliar interfaces. Whatever the results and the implications of the study, I think it would be very cool if someone dug into this topic.

March 21, 2008

Marble Adding Machine

I am back in Minnesota. Things are still a bit hectic, since my wife and I moved to a new apartment last Saturday and are still putting everything together. As I struggle to get back to my regular schedule, enjoy this very cool video of a binary adding machine using wood and marbles:

March 15, 2008

Emergency Trip

I'm off to Puerto Rico to be at my grandmother's funeral. I'll be back on Tuesday.

March 11, 2008

Not Competing

Last year I was trying to get in shape by running a few times a week. After a month or two, when I had reached the point where I could easily jog for at least an hour, I decided to go for a 5k marathon. I did terrible. I wasn't counting on the insane amount of hills we had to run through. I managed to get second to last of about 20 participants. Still, I felt great. It was my first race and I had survived. I had given it my all. The simple fact of competing and testing my skills was satisfying.

This last weekend, I went to participate in a tournament of one of my favorite video games. I was very excited because, similar to the race, this would be my first competition of its kind. I even spent the week training for it. When I got there, I was greeted with the news that all the slots for the tournament were full. There was no space for me. That's when I noticed that I would have preferred to compete and lose than to not compete at all. It is far more bearable to give it your all and lose than to not be able to give it anything at all.

February 15, 2008

Valentine Road Trip

Tomorrow I am going to Illinois as part of my wife's Valentine's Day gift to me. It's a super short road trip to go to a concert of a band that I really enjoy. I am really excited about it. To celebrate Valentine's Day (although a day late), here are links to two funny Valentine videos from Mahalo Daily. Enjoy!

How to Propose Properly

How to Write a Love Song

February 13, 2008

I Wish I Were In Alaska

This week, out of curiosity, I decided to look up the temperature in Juneau, Alaska. To my surprise, it was 15 degrees (F) warmer than here in Minneapolis! For the first time in my life, I found myself wishing I was in Alaska.

January 23, 2008

Harris Paints

As I experience negative temperatures, I can't help but think of my homeland. Here is an ad that became so popular in Puerto Rican movie theaters that some people would stand up and put there hands on their hearts as if it was the national anthem. It was simple, but the song was catchy and also did a good job of capturing our culture in its lyrics.

The lyrics (with my translation next to them) go like this:

Pinta tu vida (Paint your life)
con los colores de mi tierra (With the colors of my land)
Frambuesa piragua (raspberry [as in the color], piragua [basically flavored shaved ice on a cone])
blanco como el coco (white like coconut)
amarillo mango (yellow, mango)
Verde quenepa (green, mamoncillo)
Azul de adoquines (blue of cobblestones?)
rojo flamboyán (red, flamboyán)
turquesa del mar (turquoise of the sea)
Son los colores de mi tierra (they're the colors of my land)
Nuestros colores (our colors)
Pinta tu vida (paint your life)
con los colores que Harris te da (with the colors that Harris qives you)

The song really hit the spot with Puerto Ricans. Everyone tried to memorize the lyrics. The guys at Harris marketing outdid themselves in knowing their audience. Now every time I go to the movies, I can't help but remember this great national movie theater anthem.

January 20, 2008

Tough

Minus 10 degrees is tough. I admire all the people that can go on with their daily work and lives even when temperatures drop below zero. I have somehow managed to survive these temperatures using only jeans to cover my legs. But today I discovered the difference that just one more layer of pants can make. I went outside and had to wonder whether it was really below zero, since I felt so warm. I guess the same goes for programming. You can survive with just basic knowledge. But one more layer of extra knowledge can really make a difference! I guess that is probably why I decided to get my PhD...

January 3, 2008

I Missed

Coming back to Puerto Rico, I remembered what I missed and didn't miss about my home island.

I missed being able to walk outside without three layers of clothes.

I missed all the good food.

I missed the great music with lively rhythm.

I missed my family and friends.

I missed not getting static shocks dozens of times a day.

I didn't miss all the road traffic.

I didn't miss the sun in my eyes while driving.

I didn't miss feeling sticky all the time because of humidity.

I didn't miss the hectic drivers.

I didn't miss not having my own car.

I am happy to be here in Puerto Rico and I am happy to be studying in Minnesota. I guess the trade-offs are worth it both ways.

December 28, 2007

Two Weeks in Sunny Puerto Rico

I will be leaving this Sunday for a visit to Puerto Rico. It's been almost seven months since I've been there. I hope to regain some color and to eat all kinds of food that I can't get here in Minnesota. I will probably be too busy eating and enjoying the sun to post frequently to the blog, but I will at least try to post something every 4 days or so. I hope all of you enjoy your Christmas and New Years celebrations. And for those of us who also get Three Kings Day, even more fun for us! Enjoy!

December 25, 2007

Feliz Navidad

Merry Christmas to all of the five readers of my blog! Please forgive me if my posts become a bit sporadic during this holiday season. May you all have joyful holidays!

December 16, 2007

A Taste of My Island

Yesterday, a movie aired on the Lifetime channel titled "Christmas in Paradise". I am not writing about it to say that the plot is good or bad (although I enjoyed it), but because it was filmed at my beautiful home country, Puerto Rico. It's not every day that a movie filmed entirely in Puerto Rico comes out. And I loved the cultural elements in the film. It has the musics, the instruments, the sights, and much more. For those of you that have seen the "Eureka" TV show, the sheriff, actor Colin Ferguson, plays one of the main characters in "Christmas in Paradise". If you are interested in seeing a bit of my culture, I invite you to watch the movie. They will be airing it again on December 25th at 5pm. Enjoy!

December 11, 2007

A Small Gesture of Appreciation

It's amazing how a small gesture of appreciation, even if not on purpose, can lift your spirits. I received an e-mail this weekend from a member of the Poker Research Group in my CS Department. He asked if he could borrow two of my comic strips (the ones relating to Poker of course) to put in his group's website. To me that was a way of showing appreciation for my work. And that made me feel happy. Let people know that you appreciate their work. It really means a lot and can turn a bad day around.

November 26, 2007

Celebrating Six Months

Today I am celebrating six months. Everyone always celebrates whole years, but six months are worthy of celebration too. It is like celebrating that the cup is already half full. For optimists like me, that fills me with joy. So, what am I celebrating? It is not six months after my birthday. That was about two weeks ago. It has been exactly six months since I married the most amazing woman I have ever met. In these six months, I moved from Puerto Rico to Minnesota, from undergraduate school to graduate school, from no bills to every bill, from 90 degrees to 30 degrees (and still dropping). It is reassuring to know that through all these changes in the past six months I have had my best friend, my wife, to share them with. That is why these past six months are definitely worthy of celebration.

October 9, 2007

Never Eat More Than One Fortune Cookie

Maybe fortune cookies just don't work for the greedy. My wife and I went to a Chinese restaurant and, as is common in this type of restaurant, received fortune cookies. Probably by mistake, we were given three cookies instead of two. My wife, who likes to eat them more than I do, grabbed two of them. She opened the first one and read her fortune:

"Develop some flexibility in your point of view."

Ok, simple enough. Then, she read her second fortune:

"You know your own mind, and you look at life from a broad standpoint."

Now wait a minute, first you tell her that her point of view is not flexible enough and then you tell her that she looks at life from a broad standpoint? I think I have lost my faith in fortune cookies. I will never eat them the same way again.

October 2, 2007

My Experience as an Intern at IBM

Before starting graduate school, I had the chance to work for IBM as an intern a total of four times. That would give me practically one whole year of IBM intern experience. I know being an intern is not the most glorified position and can never truly show 100% what the company is like, but you do get a feeling for what it is like to work in a “real world? setting.

Big Blue had its ups and downs for me. These are some of the impressions I got from working at IBM in three different locations. They may be limited to the knowledge of a short-term intern, but it is probably the impression many others get too (especially other interns). First, the not-so-good things:

Too big – Being such a big company, it is easy to go about your work never knowing what it is for and who it affects. The company tries to encourage networking and to get people to understand what the rest are doing, but with such a big company, it becomes almost impossible.

Too little application programming – OK, this is more of a personal thing. I am more of a software guy (that explains why I am aiming for a PhD in Computer Science and not Engineering) and IBM is focused more on hardware and middleware. There is software development going on in IBM, but it is not everywhere. And it is especially hard for an intern to get on it. Many of the software development that does go on involves many of IBM’s own operating systems and so requires you to learn a new set of skills just to be able to program. Of course, some interns (like my sister) get lucky and find an internship that consists of building GUIs.

Being bored – This happens mostly to interns. You sometimes have nothing to do. Not just because of not having enough work, as is the case with some internships, but because getting all the required permissions to work on your tasks can take so much time. During my last internship, I had very interesting tasks, but was sometimes stuck for days waiting for permissions to be set and tools to be installed so I could work on a Linux machine.

I think that is all for the not-so-good parts. Now for the things I enjoyed at IBM:

The culture – IBM is a place where you can feel comfortable working. When I was there, I felt like I was working for the good guys. IBM seemed to me like a company that really pursues values and integrity. They promote diversity and do their best to let you know it. I actually got to IBM through a hiring event aimed at minorities. Also, I may just be very lucky, but all four bosses I had seemed like the nicest bosses on Earth. They were excellent at managing and making sure I felt welcome. I never had any problem at all with any of them.

Too big – I mentioned this as one of the not-so-good aspects of IBM, but it is also one of its virtues. Being such a well-established and varied company, there is plenty of opportunity for growth within the company and to work in a variety of projects and locations.

Speed Teams – One of my favorite internship experiences was being part of a Speed Team. This consisted of working on a project with a team of only interns. You get to work on a fun project and actually tackle it with people of similar skill levels. The networking I got from that experience was invaluable.

Foosball – During my third internship, when I was part of the Speed Team, I learned one of the best team-building exercises ever. It comes in the form of a game called foosball. It was my first time playing, but by the end of the summer I felt like a pro (only a feeling of course, I could still get beaten by a 10-year old). My team took a break every day during the afternoon to play foosball for a little while. I sure missed it during my last internship.

I really enjoyed all four of my internships at IBM. I felt comfortable and proud to be a part of the company. I also feel like I grew up a little in every internship. Still, I don’t see myself in the future doing what I was doing or what my teammates were doing for a living. I need something more exciting and that can maybe impact the rest of the world a little more directly, not through a piece of code that goes in a program that is part of an operating system that is used by a company that develops tools that finally impact the world. I guess that is why I decided to go to graduate school. I want to build a better set of skills so I can decide what I want to do for the world. IBM was part of my training grounds for whatever I will be able to accomplish in the future. So, if you are considering a job at IBM, give it a shot. You may not decide to stay there forever, but you will surely gain something valuable from the experience.

September 12, 2007

Leaving Cuba

My father left Cuba when he was around 9 years old. He, his brother, and his parents had to leave everything behind: family, toys, and even photographs. I am sure it must have been hard for them. After years of effort, they had to start over from scratch. Not an easy thing to do.

A couple of decades later, my father and his brother have been able to go through college and even graduate school, have traveled all over the world, and have given their parents a total of six grandchildren. His brother has actually become one of the top managers at the company he works for.

When I think of this, I just have to wonder: would they have been able to accomplish so much if they had stayed in Cuba? Would they have been able to get so far if their parents had been afraid of starting over? Sometimes, we are so bound to what we already know and enjoy, that we are afraid of change. We must, of course, treasure the blessings we have. But we must be careful not to let them cloud the far better blessings just waiting for us to find them.

I have come to Minnesota to complete a PhD in Computer Science, leaving all of my family (except for my wife of course) and friends in Puerto Rico. I am certainly beginning to miss their company, but when I look ahead at all the opportunities that await for me here, I am encouraged to go on. I am reminded of how my father's family decided to go for something new, took the risk, and reaped the benefits.