Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bad Universe

A few months ago I wrote a post about how to visualize 1 billion (and how there are more stars than grains of sand on this planet). While writing the piece I contacted the great Dr. Phil Plait, a former NASA astronomer and writer of the brilliant "Bad Astronomy" blog (where he also featured my post), and got some great advice. Well, Dr. Plait is now going to the big time and I would be remiss if I didn't advertise his new TV show: "Bad Universe"

Looks like Myth Busters meets Cosmos! I'm super excited for this and want to again say "Congrats Dr. Plait! You've got a viewer right here. Keep up the great work".

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sunny times

Sometimes, the most mundane of environments (such as the concrete parking garage you park in every day) are the best places for photography, especially when lit properly.

And hey, I've included an intentional self-portrait too! That's a first (for this blog at least).

And since I really have no where else to include it, here is another sunny photo taken from my monthly vantage point of seat 17C.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Last year was all about experimenting and trying ideas/actions/tasks I wouldn't normally do. I began growing my hair out last July in order to look like Mr. Darcy in time for Halloween. While my hair was not long enough to match my Darcy reference, by Halloween it was pretty long. In fact, it was longer than I could ever remember it being. Then I realized that I had never grown my hair out before. I had always jumped from having a short, an almost-buzz-cut, to spike hair (with blond highlights), to a bowl cut around the forehead, to parted either down the center or side, then cut and repeat when it got too long. Maybe I would look fabulous with long hair? How would I know if I didn't try?!

Also, seeing how both my grandparents and my father are bald (and that little ball of hair at the bottom of the shower ain't getting any smaller), I knew my time to grow long hair was limited.

So I let my hair grow. And grow. And, coincidentally, during this time my wardrobe expanded to include a fabulous collection of hats.

Alas, all good(?) things must come to an end. I reached my goal of growing long hair out, and it was time to go back to something more familiar...

If there is one benefit to come of this (beyond the scores of "wow, you look good!" complements) it is that now my mother and sister will stop bugging me about my hair every time I visit (or slyly mentioning it at the end of their blog posts) ;)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jay's Playlist: End Credit themes

Welcome to my playlist, where I discuss the music which is currently entertaining me. Below you will find a video, press play to begin the song and then read my feelings on the album.

Today's music is end credits themes

I am an avid fan of soundtracks, and more often than not the best track of a score is the one which features a medley of all the themes in the movie: the end credits track. Often times the themes used in the score are truncated due to the action on screen. Soon after a motif establishes itself the entire piece has to shift to a new tone due to a change in the onscreen action (you can hear this especially at the end of one of my previous playlists). But with the end credits the composer is given 6-10 minutes to fill with as many themes as he wishes which allows him to fully flesh out the melodies without needless interruptions.

Of course, this post could easily turn into "my favorite movie" themes, which it sort of is, but I've picked out a few end credits themes from movies you may have forgotten the themes to (or maybe only remember the main theme and not the secondary melodies).

And I would be remiss if I at least didn't mention the king of end credits themes: John Williams. Nearly all of his major films end with bombastic triumphant theme music (Star Wars series, Indiana Jones series, Superman series, Jurassic Park series, Harry Potter series, etc) and it has become cliche to the point that hearing first 5 notes of any motif reminds me of the beginning of the credits ("Directed by Steven Spielberg/George Lucas") rather than the movie itself.

Sometimes the end credits allow composers to add familiar themes that are tied to the franchise but were not in the movie. This happens most often in sequels with soundtracks not composed by the original artists. The new artists want to add their own style to the film but know if they don't include the original theme the fans will turn against them, so they wait until the end of the movie:

Um... yada, yada, yada, Costner isn't British.

Even the "end credits" track title has become so cliche that composers will spoof it if given the opportunity...

And sometimes, the end credits are the only time music is played. In the case of Cloverfield (a largely silent film musically since it was presented as "found footage") the only time music plays is over the credits, which is as close to "theme" as the movie will ever have.

Finally, movies are not the only media with end credits. One of my favorite pieces is from the game Vagrant Story which is the only time the theme appears in an orchestral form:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

April with Daddy pt 7

On the final day of my April trip I took the girls to the local school to play on the playground. They loved swings (of course) and were fascinated by the track and field area. The idea of running as fast as you can and jumping into a pit of sand (or a soft pit) is one that resonates well with toddlers.

I enjoyed my April trip very much but if flew by fast. Luckily, my May trip was not far off...

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fantasy Football ads dissected

I am a big fan of creative commercials, especially ones with technical feats that make you go "how did they do that?". Being in the visual effects industry and having worked on set for some visual effects shots by ILM, I try to dissect the videos to determine which techniques they used based on my own experiences. Some of the more interesting commercials (which really don't sell anything) are the Fantasy Football ones where players do outrageous feats (yet they could be "real" with enough skill and a lot of luck) in order to convince you to choose them from your fantasy team. Here are a selected few, see if you can figure them out:

I had my guesses on a few, and it turns out I wasn't far off. Once you figure out how they hand the balls in and hide the transitions it really isn't that difficult. Surprisingly, not as many virtual balls were used as I expected (ILM can create fake hand-held balls that you would not be able to tell the difference, but here all balls in hand are real). Here are the same commercials dissected:


I was considering adding a sports category to my blog, but it seems my only sports posts tend to be funny commercials or science rants...

How games keep you playing

I recently read an interesting (and somewhat humorous) article about how the game industry keeps players involved to the point of addiction. Their closing paragraph really nailed it:
The danger lies in the fact that these games have become so incredibly efficient at delivering the sense of accomplishment that people used to get from their education or career. We're not saying gaming will ruin the world, or that gaming addiction will be a scourge on youth the way crack ruined the inner cities in the 90s. But we may wind up with a generation of dudes working at Starbucks when they had the brains and talent for so much more. They're dissatisfied with their lives because they wasted their 20s playing video games, and will escape their dissatisfaction by playing more video games. Rinse, repeat.

Which hits a lot of the points I mentioned earlier this year:

The sad thing is due to the nature of competition, both within the medium and against the other mediums, each source of entertainment is coming up with new ways to retain the interest of the viewer and prevent them from living a life beyond. In the case of video games, when I first started playing most games could be be finished in an hour or less and since there were only a relatively few games you could play all the new "good ones" over a weekend and move on with your life. But now if a game is less than 10 hours long, or does not include a multiplayer competition (which never ends), the game receives lower scores in reviews and will sell less copies. And there are many "good games" released every month, so many that there is no way you will be able to play them all (or get good enough in the multiplayer to truly enjoy it).


The biggest game currently, World of Warcraft, literally never ends. The game keeps expanding and gathering more subscribers (around 11 million currently) who pay $15 a month to live in a simulated fantasy world. The game makes more in a month than most movies make in their entire worldwide theatrical runs. The game is fun and, in a way, social. But unlike a book or a movie it will never end; there is always another task to do or goal to "accomplish". So the generation who grew up playing 1 hour games to completion get pulled into the game and never leave.

This change from short term game completion to long-term obsession happened so gradually that many players in their 20's and 30's don't realize what has happened and are just doing what they have always done. There is no older generation who experienced this, screwed up, and are warning others to avoid it. We are the first to do this and suddenly the ill effects of this entertainment cycle are becoming more apparent to us. And it takes people like Brian to reach out to those around them and say "hey, this isn't actually good! Slow down and look what life we've missed!"

This phenomenon is new, no generation has gone through this before, and no MMO has been around long enough, or been ubiquitous enough, to change social behavior on such as scale. Malcolm Gladwell, author of some of my favorite books Outliers, Blink, and What the Dog Saw (currently reading), states that in order to be happy at work people need:
  • Autonomy. You get a role in deciding what you do every day. Even if you might not always get decide exactly what you do, you can choose how to get it done.
  • Complexity. It must be an intellectually stimulating challenge. As the book states, it should “engage both your mind and imagination.”
  • Connection Between Effort & Reward. The harder you work, the greater your income or recognition (at least eventually).
And instead of working harder at their job or studies in order to improve their positions and achieve these work qualities, the players spend time in virtual worlds to gain the same satisfaction (being in a recession doesn't help much either, since it is harder and harder to find satisfactory jobs even if you do work hard to earn them). Again, this is so new that no one knows what effect it will have on future generations but it will be interesting to watch.

On a side note, one game company is trying to use these addictive methods for good by creating "Epic Win", a game where you level up your character not by fighting monsters but by completing your daily chores in real life. You want to earn a better sword to fight? Do the dishes and take out the garbage. Need more gold to buy better armor? Finish your homework. Need more strength to beat the boss? Go to the gym and work out:

Sure you can lie and say you did the chore instead of actually doing it, but then the game loses the "Connection Between Effort & Reward" aspect and players will quit playing. If it takes no effort other than lying to level up the game is no fun, therefore the true gamers will actually complete these actions (or move on to something else).

Kudos to this company for at least trying to make a difference.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I Love to See You Smile x 3

When the kids turn 6 months old I create a music video of them and their various accomplishments/experiences. As a 6 mo old, this usually means lots of smiling and maybe even rolling over. When I created the video for my second child, I realized that I had a lot of similar clips as her older sister, so after I finished the video I synced it up to her sister's and suddenly a great comparison video was made!

Elliot, the 3rd child, just turned 6 months in May...

5k, schmive-kay

Most days when I run I don't try to push myself too hard. I don't need to break a personal record each time, and pushing yourself too hard, too fast, and too often is a great way to get injured. But every now and then I wake up and ask myself "I wonder if I am any faster?"

About a year ago I ran my first non-stop 5k (3.1 miles) in 34:40 with roughly a 11:20 per mile average pace. I was proud, I had reached my first goal of training to run that length. My next goal was to run in less than 30 minutes. About 2 months later I ran a 28:40. I then wanted to run in less than 27 minutes, which I did this past Spring (I took a break from running in the winter to when Elliot was born, and because it rained every frakkin day in Cali). My new goal was to run in less than 26 minutes...

Today I ran the 5k in 25:27 (8:10 pace) and still had energy to go farther and faster. My new goal is to run a sub 25 minute 5k with an average mile pace of below 8:00, or roughly 10 minutes faster than I ran a year ago. A year ago, such speeds sounded like a dream, but now I don't think its going to be too hard. Hopefully my next running post in the following month(s) will have my creating an every more ambitious goal after finishing this one with ease...

April with Daddy pt 6

As we near the end of my trip in April, we see photos of a calm night with the family. We took the dog for a walk, played with sparklers (we stock up on them each July 4th and New Year's to have them all year), and just had fun "baby time" with Elliot who is getting big enough to interact with people now.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Jay's Playlist: Sam Tsui and Covers

Welcome to my playlist, where I discuss the music which is currently entertaining me. Below you will find a video, press play to begin the song and then read my feelings on the album.

Today's music is Covers by Sam Tsui (and Kurt Schneider)

The immense popularity of "Glee" has created a trend among young singers of producing stylish (yet simple) covers of popular songs. Thanks to the ubiquity of Youtube and its helpful "related videos" feature, viewers can easily find new arrangements of their favorite tunes linked from the originals and potential vocal stars (and their video producers) can put their voices out there for the world to judge. And of all young stars online, Sam Tsui stands out as the one with the potential to take the world by storm (with the help of his friends).

I found Sam exactly as described above: I was on a Glee kick and after listening to their version of "Don't Stop Believing" I saw Sam's version in Youtube's "related videos" area. So I watched it. Then I watched his a cappella Michael Jackson medley. Then the Lady Gaga medley. Then his "College Musical" series. Next thing I know, I am purchasing his album on iTunes and haven't stopped listening to it since. Since I rarely drive any more, and listen to my iPod when I do, I am blissfully ignorant of the current pop music on the radio. So his album of covers contains about a half dozen songs which I have never heard before and only associate with him. At this point I don't think I can listen to the original versions as they wouldn't sound "right".

Sam and friends, specifically his friend/guitarist/producer/filmmaker Kurt Schneider, are passionate artists who attend Yale University and have access to (and the talent to use) the university's musical production equipment. After seeing the success of High School Musical they began making their own (somewhat juvenile, yet entertaining) version called "College Musical". They produced four episode and ended on a cliffhanger before being contacted about making a full length movie which is currently in production.

While we wait for their feature debut, Sam and friends have been hard at work at producing more music videos of popular medleys, hilarious musical duels, an album of Covers, and duets with fellow aspiring vocalists. Which brings us to our...


Nick Pitera works down the street from me at Pixar, but in his spare time he records covers of his favorite duets. Yet he sings both the male and female parts. Watch his version of Aladdin's "A Whole New World" for a good laugh:

Monday, July 5, 2010

Muppet Memorial

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Jim Henson. The man was an inspiration to millions and his work still retains its relevancy decades later. Almost every American under 40 learned from him ("c is for cookie!") throughout their childhood. My children know who Big Bird is even two decades after Henson's passing (they also love the original Muppet Movie and can sing "Movin' Right Along" which is stuck in my head due to my 5th grade music class with Mr. Ukena).

I was too young to really understand what his death meant and how we lost a brilliant teacher (and comedian), but this somber anniversary helped me realize how much he meant to the world. His service is on youtube, and if you are muppet fan then the medley of muppet tunes is a must see. You may not have heard some of this songs since you were under 10 years old, but hearing them will bring back wonderful memories. And if you want to cry today, watch Big Bird singing "It ain't easy being green".

And to end on an upbeat, here is one of my favorite moments from Seasame Street:

Bay to Breakers 2010

In May I ran my first "official" race: Bay 2 Breakers!
The annual race travel 12k (7.3 mi) from one end of San Francisco (the bay) to the other (the breaking ocean waves). In 2009, on a whim, I decided to walk the course which was my first long distance walk/run exercise in 5 years and my first large race experience. Considering I prepped in no way I am surprised that I didn't collapse within the first few miles.

After a year of running for fun I decided to do the race "officially" (meaning I paid money and got a race number). I put on my trusty Five Finger shoes and ran my heart out, then as a bonus got my picture taken:

When I crossed the finish line my time was texted to me: 1:16:00! I ran over 7 miles in about 75 minutes! A few items to note:

  1. My 2009 time was 2:15 which means I knocked an hour off of my (unfit) time; awesome!
  2. While my overall average mile for the race is just over 10 minutes in execution it was even faster. I underestimate how large 80,000 people really is (see below) and spent the first 3 miles running 11-12 minute miles as I tried to pass the slower people in front of me. By the 4th mile I was running with people traveling the same pace as me. So to average an overall 10 minute mile I likely ran 8:30 miles for the last half of the race! And 8:30 for a mile used to be my "fast single mile" speed, not my pace speed!
  3. The Five Finger shoes feel amazing, but they pretty much are like running barefoot. And running barefoot on street concrete for over an hour does not feel good. I normally run my 5ks on dirt paths, my heels were not prepared for this race. Luckily, the last 2 miles were in Golden Gate Park and I did a lot of "off road" running.
  4. Any food consumed after running for 75 minutes tastes like the best food ever. They gave out free yogurt at the end of the race and it was like manna from heaven. I bought it at grocery store later and it tasted like... plain yogurt.
  5. Whoever decided to set up the bus stop (to get back to the start line) almost 2 miles from the finish line needs to be shot.
  6. At 5:30 AM on race day I had everything ready to go (cell phone, water bottle, running clothes, sun screen, race info, etc). EXCEPT: I didn't realize the racing bib did not come with an adhesive. I always assumed they had sticky backs, but you actually use a clothes pin to attach them. Seeing as I am a guy (ie: I don't sew) I had no way to attach the bib the day of the race (I was out of tape too). Luckily, my first aid kit provided a solution: band-aids! I'm not sure why I needed 30 band-aids in my first aid kit, but now I only have 25...
  7. Sports photos are a racket. The company offered printed photos for $20+ but if I wanted digital copies they cost over $50. Most. expensive. blog post. ever!

(I'm that white dot 354th from front about about 24th from the right)

Dinosaurs at the desk

I work at a very creative company. We recently expanded and added cubicles (gasp!) to the expansion. Soon after, the CEO was walking through the expansion and despite all the cool posters, colorful wall paintings, hammocks, and big screen TVs playing animated movies he felt that the office looked a little too "corporate". So the company offered each employee a budget to decorate their desks to match their personal style.

I, of course, chose dinosaurs.

(Although, considering how long it took me to find them, the chocobos did remain among my decorations. And Yoshi is also a dinosaur so he stuck around.)

The little orange Spinosaurus was given to me by my oldest daughter for Father's day. She didn't even know I was collecting dinosaurs, she just went to the toy store and thought I would love that toy.

(more photos below)