Older blog entries for epsalon (starting at number 109)

Happy π day!

Today is March 14th, aka pi day, a day celebrating one of the most important numbers in mathematics - π.

Since I happened to be in Germany today, I celebrated π day with my brother and his wife by making 2π — a yummy beef pie for dinner and a chocolate pie for dessert.

 Beef pie for pi day

For dessert we decided to make the pie even more meaningful and decorate the pie with the first few digits of π, resulting in a delicious, and informative pie:

Chocolate pi with digits!

More photos are available on Flickr and Facebook.

In other news, I’ll be arriving in Israel on Tuesday. If you want to meet me, let me know…

Syndicated 2010-03-14 18:29:11 from Alon's Blog

Open Letter to Stanford University

I have sent the following letter regarding the AlertSU system at Stanford University. I am hereby posting the letter I have sent verbatim.

Subject: Troubling unsigned email message sent via AlertSU.

I have received an email message regarding a personal issue via the AlertSU system, which is supposed to be only used for emergencies (letter attached below). The letter was unsigned except by the general name “STANFORD UNIVERSITY”.

First of all, I would like to request the name and job title of the author of this message, since this information was never supplied.

Second, this message is by no way shape or form related to any kind of emergency, and therefore should not be posted via AlertSU — a system the Stanford community cannot opt out of.

Third, I am very concerned about the content of the message itself. The message uses phrases such as “stranger”, “Unbeknownst to the student” and “did not appear to pose a threat” and selectively mentions some of that person’s private belongings. It seems these were designed to lead the readers to assume that the stranger may have intended to act maliciously, when this is just a simple case of a person forgetting his bag in a stranger’s car. The important cautionary note is that you should make sure to take your belongings with you upon leaving a vehicle.

Implying that lighter fluid and handcuffs have no use other for illicit purposes reeks of intolerance that the Stanford community should not be subject to.

Alon Altman

In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 30th, a Stanford student struck up a conversation with a stranger at a bar in Palo Alto near the campus.  The stranger, a male, suggested that they go out for food.  The student drove the stranger to a McDonald’s in East Palo Alto.  The stranger then asked the student if he could crash at the student’s residence. The student refused, so the stranger got out of the student’s vehicle.  Unbeknownst to the student, the stranger left a bag of personal items in the student’s car.  Upon discovering the bag, the student took it to the Stanford Police (on Monday, February 1) so that it could be returned to the stranger.  Among the items in the bag, the police located a pair of handcuffs and lighter fluid.  The officers were able to ascertain the identity of the stranger and, after some investigation, determined that the individual did not appear to pose a threat to the student or the community.  None-the-less, the Stanford Police would like to remind you to be wary of offering rides to people whom you do not know.

Syndicated 2010-02-02 09:12:39 from Alon's Blog

Macs, part 4: getting a new MacBook

In my previous post I wrote about my experience with macs, and the conclusion was that in order to criticize macs effectively, I should get one. Over $3,000 and one week later, I got a brand new MacBook Pro 15″ (and a free iPod touch).

Apple MacBook box Everything mac

The mac came in a brown box, which included a white box inside it. Inside the white box, was the MacBook, the power and video adapters, and a black envelope. Inside the black envelope was a book titled “Everything Mac”. There was also an envelope labeled “Everything Else”. Following the instructions in the “Everything Mac” book I connected the power supply and powered on the mac using the hidden power button. The book included important information about using the TrackPad, stuff I had to figure out slowly in the previous posts.

Power connector  Power button

When the system started for the first time, I was greeted with a language selection screen, and then a welcome video (with no useful information). After the welcome video, I was prompted to press Esc to hear instructions on how to use the mac. I did, however, it started a detailed explanation about an accessibility feature that didn’t even work.

Macbook (off)  VoiceOver

I managed to complete the setup without much difficulty, but no tutorials were provided. According to instructions in the Everything MAC book, I installed software updates, and started to explore. I found a document about “Stacks” and document and download stacks. I also found some online tutorial videos.

Taking my picture   After setup

One of the things I tried to do with the new mac was use the “Time Machine” backup software. I tried connecting two different external HDs, and got no visual response from the OS for the first, and only the small FAT partition showed up for the second. Reading about it online, I figured that ext3 partitions are not supported, and only plain old FAT drives can be used for backup. Big fail!

Another thing I tried was to download TV shows on iTunes, but I was stumped by the repeated requests for money. I have paid $3000 for a mac, why do I have to pay extra to use it???

Syndicated 2009-08-23 20:22:38 from Alon's Blog

Macs, part 3: Podcasts, Customer Service, and Fingers

As I’ve posted before, I’m staying at a fancy hotel in the Boston area. Next to the hotel is a Mall, and in this mall is an Apple store. Again I tried using the display laptops. If you recall, the laptops have no mouse buttons (the entire pad is a button), which after a short use causes pain in the wrist. The answer I got regarding this issue from “mac people” was: My mac has a button, but I’m sure the no-button pad is just A-mazing, Steve Jobs is God and I am his servant!

So, this time I tried a new approach: I asked a customer service person at the Apple store for help.  The customer service rep didn’t repeat the same “Apple is God” story I get from fanpeople (I guess they are trained to avoid it). Instead, he calmly explained to me another Mac gesture: Hold a finger on the pad while dragging another finger. I had to ask where I find those fingers. It turns out Apple hardware uses unique input devices called “fingers”. The idea is that the trackpad somehow reacts differently to multiple input positions. It turns out this feature is required for basic functionality. Right-click is also supported with the Ctrl button, there is also a multi-finger gesture for that but I’m not sure what it is.

The next thing I tried to do is to replicate functionality I have on Linux on the mac machine. The functionality I decided to try was downloading and playing podcasts. I googled it and the search results pointed me to software called “GarageBand”. I launched it from the dock and selected podcast. It opened a complicated screen with space for male and female voices (why do I have to tell it who’s talking in the podcast?). I decided to try listening to Car Talk from NPR. I used the Safari browser to find the Car Talk podcast, and copied the URL. Then I had to right-click (with Ctrl) on a submenu that said Podcast (why do I have to select podcasts again?), the only option was “open in iTunes”. I know iTunes is spamware for copying music to iPods under Windows but that was the only option. Anyway, the iTunes had an option to add a podcast under the Advanced menu (If that’s advanced, what’s the basic way?). I pasted the URL using SpecialAlt(⌘)-V and confirmed.

Now I could go back to GarageBand and after a few trails I could finally see the podcast there and drag it to the play area. I put it under “Male Voice” since the show is narrated by men.  The GarageBand software seems to be an audio editor like Audacity. I’m reminded of old Windows 3.11 WAV files were opened in sound recorder… Anyway, I clicked the play button and it played! seeking was pretty hard since it was extremely zoomed and there was no way of seeing the entire file in one screen.

I thought to myself there must be an easier way to do it. So I googled “mac podcast player” and found a program called Juice. I installed it, subscribed to Car Talk with the URL, and clicked on the play button. Well, it stated playing. In the background. With the same show of Car Talk still playing in GarageBand. All attempts to stop it didn’t work. I even closed Juice entirely (with SuperAlt-Q, as the customer service guy explained) and still both podcasts were playing. It finally stopped after I SuperAlt(⌘)-Q’d all applications I could find (except GarageBand, and Finder, that wouldn’t close).

Then, I decided to see if GarageBand can export to a mobile device. The whole idea of podcasts is to listen to them on the move! So, under the share menu there was something about Podcasts and iWeb. I clicked that, and the podcast stopped playing and moved to the start, forgetting my playback location. Good thing I remembered what it was and seeked back there manually (the export failed BTW).

After all those trials, an Apple guy finally approached me, and told me — that the store is closing and I have to leave. I asked why is the GarageBand thing so complicated, and he said that I should use iTunes to play podcasts. He couldn’t explain more since I had to leave.  That’s all for now.

PS: I forgot to mention the fact that keyboard shortcuts don’t work as expected, the Alt-F4 Expose settings screen for example, says that expose could work F9, F10, and F11. Instead, those buttons adjust the volume! It turns out the real shortcut is F3! But I found that out only after coming back to my room. Amazing documentation from Apple, yet again.

PPS: I even thought I’d buy one just to see how it works, but an Apple laptop costs over $7,000, and for that price it’s only a 256GB hard drive. What is it made of? Solid Gold? And you still have to pay extra for backup hardware (yes, macs need special $500 hardware to enable backups). It seems like macs are the fancy hotels of the computer world — anything you want to do costs extra.

PPPS: I suspect Apple puts addictive substances in their products. That’s the only way I can explain why anyone who’s purchased an Apple product seems to be in love with it. On a more serious note, I think the main driver for people loving Apple products in cognitive dissonance — You don’t want to admit to yourself you significantly overspent for a product that is no better than others, and since things aren’t customizable, people convince themselves they like it that way.

Syndicated 2009-08-12 02:07:39 from Alon's Blog

Rant about fancy hotels

I have just arrived in Cambridge, MA for a week of consulting for Microsoft Research. They paid for my flight and hotel room so they put me in a fancy $200/night hotel. In this post I will try to explain why in my opinion, in general, the fancier the hotel the worse it is.

I have nothing against hotels as a service. Hotels provide a traveler with a clean place to spend the night, and with basic necessities. Hotels are useful when traveling, or when you need a clean neutral place to have sex. However, fancy hotels do not seem to provide these well, and charge a lot of money to do so.

Compare, for example, the fancy hotel I’m staying at now with a cheap motel for $40/night. The motel included a microwave and fridge, free parking, free wifi, and a free “breakfast”, which, admittedly, is nothing to feast over. However, the fancy hotel includes none of those (or least without caveats galore).

Here is a comparison of the cheap motel and the fancy hotel. I am purposefully omitting hotel names, as this is common for many hotels and motels.

Amenity

Cheap Motel

Fancy Hotel

Price per night

$51

$211

Parking

free, right outside room

$20/day

Internet Access

free WiFi

WiFi free with loyalty program, otherwise $10/day

Getting there

free airport shuttle

15 minute walk from subway station

Breakfast

free coffee and popcorn

$21 for continental breakfast

Refrigerator

free in room, empty

only mini-bar

Microwave

free in room

not available

Location

right off highway

near center of town

Storage Space

lots of empty drawers, closet

one drawer, small closet

Bed

Queen size, comfy, extra pillows on demand

King size, very comfy, useless decorative pillows

Power outlets

Limited

Limited

Phone

One phone near bed

Three phones (one cordless)

Phone Costs

Free local calls

$1/local call

Bath/Shower

Included, with fancy showerhead

Included, with fancy showerhead


Given the above comparison, why would anyone choose the fancy hotel over the cheap motel? I’m really curious. If you blog readers willingly stay at (and pay for) fancy hotels, why do you do so?

Syndicated 2009-08-10 01:43:47 from Alon's Blog

The Strange World of Macs (Part 2)

I promised a second post about macs, and it’s time to deliver. The reason I’m updating about it now, is that it turns out that two of the undergrads working with me on the computational pool project are mac people, and use mac laptops. Whenever I explain to them why macs are hard to use and complicated they keep saying I’m doing it wrong, and there’s a better way to do it. My main complaint here that this “better way” is never documented and isn’t easy to find.

For example, one mac person in our group re-installed a mac machine that was sitting in my office after the HD died (it required a trip to the shop to replace, since mac hardware is hard to maintain, and this is desktop!). After he left, I tried using his machine, the first thing I was greeted with was a screen asking for a password. That’s not very user friendly!

So, I googled for password reset information. I found several sites explaining how to reset a password without the CD, but all required you to be already logged in. I realized, it must be possible with the CD. However, there was no apparent way to boot from CD. Heck, there was no apparent way to get the CD out of the drive. Later I found the eject button on the keyboard, but still the computer will always boot from HD. I googled “mac boot from cd” and found you need to hold the option button while booting, not del of F1 like normal computers, and of course no message on boot to tell you that.

I booted the install CD, and it had a password reset option, but it didn’t work, since it wasn’t the right version. I had to boot an upgrade CD in order to successfully reset the password. After the password was reset I could finally log in.

Next step was to create a user for myself. This was not easy. The “spotlight” search feature I was told so much about did not work since it was “indexing”. I finally found the user management from the control panel and created my user.

All this time I was interrupted with an annoying window that wouldn’t close saying “Welcome” in different languages. Same annoying pop-up junk as with Windows. After that was done, an “install updates” popup came up and it had to restart and install the updates. By the time I was writing this post, the updates have finally been installed. I will now try to log in.

I am now on the mac itself. I managed to install Adium and Firefox. As it turns out, the popup window that appears is a mounted virtual drive. The two icons represent the application and a shortcut/symlink (I’m not sure) to the “Applications” folder, which is similar to the Start menu in windows. Dragging one to the other launches an install script, though I’m not sure exactly how. After installation is done you must unmount (”Eject”) the disk image in order to use the application. The application itself is only available from the applications menu, which can be accessed by searching for “Applications” using the magnifying glass on the top-right of the screen (called “Spotlight”). Spotlight does not search the web, or for uninstalled applications.

You could also  use spotlight to search for a specific application. In a way, it’s like a limited graphical command line. The most important application to locate with Spotlight is the real command line (called “Terminal”). This application will later appear on the bottom of the screen, and as I found in the book “Mac OSX or Unix Geeks”, you can drag it do a different position on the bottom of the screen to have it stay there. I did not find a similar way to add a non-running application.

Another discovery I’ve made: The screen has a hidden camera near the top, I guess Apple literally watches you. More to come soon.

Tried to install Hebrew. Worked, but without a keyboard shortcut. Any attempt to enable launched a monster keyboard shortcut menu, where it turns out that Hebrew conflicts with the “spotlight” thing. So, it’s either Hebrew or being able to launch applications. Updates to come.

Syndicated 2009-07-04 01:30:27 from Alon's Blog

Walking to work experiment

WalkingToday is day 6 of my walking to work experiment, and I could proudly say the experiment is a success. For the past 6 work days, I have been walking all the way from home to work and back every day. A distance of 2.7 miles.

Why would I do such a thing? For several reasons: First, walking is good for my health. Second, I can save money on gas and parking. And third, it is good for the environment.

Basically, I decided last Tuesday to see if it is possible to walk all the way to work, so I gave it a try. On that first day I realized I should probably take a hat, water, and a better portable radio. I took the route recommended by Google Maps, only to later find various shortcuts to make my way easier. My conclusion after this initial experiment: It’s not too bad.

I kept walking Wednesday and Thursday. Then Friday morning it rained. I decided to walk anyway. Also, I said if I can walk in the rain, I can  keep up this walking program. So, the same day I returned my parking permit and bought an umbrella. I bought 4 daily parking permits just in case.

Now is day 6 of my walking experiment, and I still haven’t used any of the parking permits. I feel good and happy. I really hope I can keep it up.

Syndicated 2009-05-05 20:36:29 from Alon's Blog

Order, Office Depot, and Vertical Storage

Those of you who have been following my twitter or Facebook updates may have noticed that in the past three days I was in a cleaning spree, transforming my room from an unpassable mess (literally) to a reasonably clean and spacious environment. In addition to the detailed sorting and throwing away of junk, I made some reforms to the order in my room. The goal is to hopefully have maintainable order, instead of just temporary order.

One of the things I’ve realized is that I do not have enough storage space for all my stuff when all my clothes are clean. That leads to extreme clutter in the clothes drawers and clothes being stored on the floor. My soultion was to use vertical storage. I went to Target (retail) and purchased a vertical storage device. This device allowed me to make use of unused room volume for storage while keeping floor area clear. Amazing!

Similarly, I used a 99L storage tub to store all my unused boardgames and empty boxes, instead of keeping several volotile stacks around the room.

Another great solution was to puchase two additional garbage containers to allow for pre-sorting of paper and recycleable trash. No more keeping unneeded paper or empty water bottles on the floor or desk. Now I can trash them immediately and do not need to collect during cleanup time.

While I was at Office Depot, I also found a better solution than envelopes for paper storage. It’s called a “file folder“, and not in the standard sense of a directory for digital storage, but rather a physical object that stores paper.

Hopefully this new room order will actually last.

Syndicated 2009-04-27 01:39:01 from Alon's Blog

Missed flight, business class

Greetings from over the Atlantic Ocean. I’m writing this blog post from KLM Flight 0605 from Amsterdam to San Francisco in Business class! But, before I write about my business class experience, I should explain my tweet about “missing my flight”.

It all started with me booking a one-way award ticket in business class from Tel Aviv to San Francisco via Amsterdam. The ticket was booked for April 16th at 5:05 am local time. Those with a keen eye will notice that that’s exactly when I posted my tweet about missing the flight. I did not make the flight for the simple reason I was sure I was booked on the April 17th flight, the one I’m on board right now.

The mix-up occurred due to an “off by one” error in copying the ticket information into Google Calendar. Since I was in the Pacific time zone I had to enter all time information in PDT, which is 10 hours earlier than Tel Aviv time, and 9 hours earlier than Amsterdam time. I did the math correctly, but neglected to adjust the date, thus adding the flight on Apr 16th at 7:05pm PDT instead of Apr 15th.

From that point onward, I did not look at my ticket until I was about to check in, what I believed was 26 hours before departure. I went to KLM’s check-in site, selected the flight path and the date and was surprised to see my ticket was not found. After looking up the ticket itself I realized that my booked flight is departing in two hours, while I’m at least a two hour drive from the airport, and my bags are not packed.

I called KLM Platinum reservations and they said that I’d have to book a new ticket, but they could cancel my existing ticket (and hopefully refund the miles and taxes paid). They recommended I call Flying Blue the next morning when they are available.

I didn’t want to wait till the next morning and tried calling the local airport, which was checking in my flight at that time. I got no answer. Then, I decided to try to call the US Flying Blue line, but it was already after 8pm on the east coast, so they too were not available. 5 am passed, and I didn’t have a ticket.

Then I came across the idea to call the Flying Blue center in a different timezone. I called Flying Blue Japan and they were happy to assist me. It turns out there was one award ticket left, in Business class, for the flight on the 17th. I booked that ticket.

Fast forward to the next day, and I boarded the first flight (TLV-AMS). It seems I would have been upgraded if I had an economy ticket as economy was full (as usual). The flight had a slight delay but my connection was fine. At Amsterdam, I went to the new lounge, took a shower, went online, and made a few phone calls.

About an hour later, I got tricked again by the flight information screens displaying my flight as “Boarding”. I went to the gate, quickly passed security and realized no one has yet boarded the aircraft. After nervously waiting for about 20 minutes, a delay was announced, then another one, and we finally started boarding 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time, and departed over an hour late. We should make up for some of the lost time in the air.

Now, for the business class experience. I’m seated at row 77, which is the upper deck exit row on the 747. It’s about 4 hours into the flight and I haven’t yet left the upper deck, and rarely left my seat, which turns into an almost flat bed that’s pretty comfy and sleepable. I spent the beginning of the flight sleeping (and eating the pretty good food) and then watched some shows on the IFE system, which is kinda old, but reasonable. I’m writing this on my laptop connected to the in-flight AC power.

Arrived safely at SFO, and posting this from the airport hotel.  That’s all for now. Sorry for not blogging more, but you can always follow me on Twitter!

Syndicated 2009-04-17 22:17:43 from Alon's Blog

I don’t do human babies

Me and human infant ShaharAs I have posted before, my brother has recently had twin daughters, which made me a new uncle. As many of you know, babies and I don’t get along very well. I mean, they like me, but I’m very much afraid of them and have no idea what to do with them.

Well, for some obscure reason, I guess mostly to laugh at my feeble attempts, they have placed one of these 3-month-old babies on me. Within a few minutes, she has already has vomited some kind of white substance on my clean t-shirt. I decided to learn more about these weird creatures, so I did what I usually do.Used Google.

Well, I made a series of web searches, but none returned any useful results. I am usually pretty good at web searching. I wasn’t sure where I went wrong. Many searches resulted in google scholar papers, but none included detailed enough instructions for beginners. Not to mention the fact that the product itself is not user-friendly. More about that below.

human baby “user’s guide”
human infant “user’s guide”
human infant manual
human infant safety
human infant care
human infant maintenance
human infant maintanence
human infant upkeep
baby uncle guide
new uncle guide
human baby care
human offspring care
human offspring maintenance
human offspring maintenence
human baby upkeep
human baby maintenance
human baby maintenence

Never mind Google’s failure here, the product itself is a UI nightmare. No manual included, no labels of any kind on the very delicate parts. No warnings. No warranty (except as required by the state), and it’s not even eligible for return or replacement, and you can’t even legally dispose of it.

It seems that human infants have a significant negative influence on humans, rivaled only by that of cats:

Cat/Intelligence

I, for one, seem to be immune to that negative effect (of cats too). However, I still cannot overcome the effect of two babies in my vicinity on all other humans, making having fun, such as playing board games, or having meaningful conversations, virtually impossible.

This post is a public service announcement: Use birth control. Because most STDs are manageable, babies aren’t!

As for me, I’m considering a vasectomy…

Syndicated 2009-04-10 17:38:59 from Alon's Blog

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