Friday, December 29, 2006

"Best" Astronomy Pictures of 2006

If you have some spare time, check out this blog that has a "best of 2006" for astronomy pictures. Some of the pictures by themselves might not seem too amazing, but if you read the descriptions there's a lot of interesting stuff there. I personally like the one with the space station and space shuttle visible in front of the sun. And the saturn picture with a tiny spec known as earth in the background is pretty cool, too!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Fortune of the Week (7)

"Be satisfied with what you already own."

Hmmm... not really a fortune, but more Buddhist-inspired advice - always a good thing I suppose, and very similar to this previous fortune from several weeks past.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Baking proof

I almost forgot to mention this. For Christmas day I baked another pie, and this time, I remembered to take a picture to help prove I really did make it from scratch.

Ok, so I admit there's not 100% proof here in this picture. All you see are the apple guts and the finished unbaked pie. But there is a rolling pin in the background with some flour on it. Next time I'll get some step-by-step pictures of the whole process, ok?


Earlier this month, two friends of mine invited me to their apartment to help decorate their Christmas tree. However, instead of the usual Christmas tree ornaments, we made origami ornaments (mostly cranes). This piqued my interest in origami. So, for Christmas this year, my sister gave me two cool origami books and some origami paper. (As an aside, I should mention she also thoughtfully made a donation to Oxfam America as part of my Christmas gift. Way to go sis! When asked for a Christmas wishlist, I usually put together a grab bag of items, some more serious than others (pond scum usually makes the list for some reason each year). This year's list included a request for an end to world hunger. We all know a donation to Oxfam won't end world hunger, but it's a help just the same.)

Anyhow, back to origami. One of the books is quite interesting. It's called Origami, from Angelfish to Zen, by Peter Engel. At first glance, it looks more like a companion volume to Douglas R. Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach than a book about Origami. Sure enough, after glancing through the acknowledgements section of the book, the author makes mention of Hofstadter's influence. The book makes connections between origami and music and science and all sorts of other interesting topics. Then, to top off all that heavy reading, the latter half of the book is folding instructions for a boat-load of origami critters, some of them quite complex.

This afternoon I had about 45 minutes of free time before heading out to karate and made my first attempt at one of the more simple figures from the book. Here it is. Hopefully you can figure out what it's supposed to be.

Pushing the human endurance limits

Here's an article for motivation on what the human body is capable. As just one example from the article, this guy ran 50 marathons in 50 days! Yikes!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Belted Kingfisher

After waking up to the traditional Christmas morning sounds of rapid-fire shotgun blasts from duck hunters on the cove, I noticed this bird in a tree across the river:

It was about 100 yards away, so unfortunately the picture quality is pretty bad. I'm pretty sure it's a kingfisher.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The earth is round!

While at the beach today, I made an amazing discovery. The earth is round! It was such a clear day, I could see Block Island quite well. It's about 12 miles away, and given that distance the curve of the earth appears to be visible. Take a look at this cropped image:

The building in the center is Block Island North Lighthouse. Notice how it appears to be right on the sea level. Now look at this picture take from a much closer distance (image linked from the Block Island tourism web page):

Or for an even better view, look at this. The lighthouse is obviously on a small hill. But, with my 12 mile away view, it appears at sea level as the hill is hidden behind the curvature of the earth. There are other parts of my cropped photo showing just the roofs of houses on the island viewable behind the edge of the sea, but I thought it was interesting to compare this recognizable building with photos taken from the island to get a different perspective.

And yes, I do realize everyone really already knows the earth is round. But it's still kind of neat to be able to see it first hand.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The weather was incredibly unlike the day before Christmas - quite warm for this time of year. I went to East Beach for a hike with a friend. Since we were both disappointed with the lack of snow so far this year, my friend commented that walking in the sand would be good snow-like practice. It was very windy, so not much wildlife to be seen. I did manage to get this one picture of a yellow-rumped warbler (yes, that's it's real name). I like the subtle yellow markings.

The only other bird of interest I saw was what appeared to be a sharp-shinned hawk (perhaps looking for warblers for dinner). My reaction time was a bit too slow to get a picture, however. All I could do was point and say, "Hawk!" as it glided overhead and out of view into some nearby pine trees.

Volkswagen owners love their cars more than people!

Here's a direct quote from a Volkswagen ad I found in a magazine:

"Volkswagen owners love their cars more than other drivers."

Maybe I just interpreted it the wrong way, but does the wording sound a bit odd to you? English grammar was never my strong point, so perhaps this is totally proper - it just seems unclear what the phrase "more than other drivers" is modifying. Anyhow, I thought it was a bit funny to read.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


There is a recent advertisement on the local RI buses around here that has the heading "Volunteer!". It's an ad looking for volunteers for child advocates in the court system. I don't really know anything about that particular type of volunteering, but I think the idea of volunteering in general is a good one. It's easy to get caught up in our own lives and not think of taking the time out of our schedules to help others. There are plenty of opportunities for volunteer work, just type "volunteer" into a Google search and you'll find opportunities for all sorts of interests - helping people, helping animals, helping the environment, etc. Or try Volunteer Match. You can enter your zip code and how far you are willing to drive and you'll find a list of places that need help. If everyone spent even just a little time doing volunteer work, the world would be a much better place.

I know it's not always easy to just go out and volunteer. I'm embarassed to say I had been thinking about the idea of working in a soup kitchen for years, but never actually did anything about it. I always had some excuse for not doing it - I didn't really know what I'd do there, or how to find out specifically how to help, I'm shy around strangers, etc. Finally, about six months ago, out of the blue, a friend of mine suggested the idea of helping out at a soup kitchen, not knowing it was something that had been in the back of my mind for too long a time. So, since June I've been working for a few hours each Saturday morning helping prepare breakfast at a local soup kitchen. And all those excuses I had had in my mind for not doing it earlier turned out to be pretty silly. The first day we went there, we just showed up unannounced and asked if there was something we could do to help. Since we were complete unknowns, we were initially given pretty simple tasks - setting up chairs, sweeping, organizing the food pantry, etc. But, the point is the people there were happy to have the extra help. And, as we got to know the place and consistently came week after week, we were able to take on more responsibilities and be even more helpful.

So, if you've been thinking that you've always wanted to do volunteer work but never have, go out and get to it! There are plenty of places that need help! And if you never considered the idea - please do! Just a few hours of volunteer work a week can make a big difference!

Fortune of the Week (6)

"Your help will be needed in an embarassing situation"

Hmmmm.... embarassing for whom? Well, at least it's a real fortune this time. I can't complain, I suppose.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Odd shaped ducks

These are definitely the strangest looking ducks I've seen. They could puff up their head and neck to about the same size as the rest of their body.

This is what the duck looked like normally:

Sorry the pictures are a bit pixelated. The ducks were a fair distance from my condo window. I had to zoom in and crop the pictures to show the details. Then the automated program I wrote for posting the photos automatically scaled the images to a width of 600 pixels. Normally this scaling to 600 pixels is a good thing as most of my photos are hi-res and are much wider than that. But since these pictures were tiny crops smaller than 600 pixels wide to begin with, they got blown up instead.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Happiness in the Workplace

A friend at work sent me this link to a book about about finding happiness in the workplace. At first glance I thought it sounded a little goofy, but while giving it a chance and reading the introduction I thought this quote was interesting:

"I can safely say that there is no greater job than making other people happy! It’s continually fun, exciting and rewarding. And when you think about it, isn’t that really the true purpose of most jobs—to make people happy? You must make the customers happy. Or your co-workers. Or the boss. Or the shareholders.

A nurse who makes the patients happy and healthy is better than one who only makes them healthy. A boss who makes his employees happy and efficient is better than one who only touts efficiency. A teacher who can make his students smarter and happier is better than one who only passes on knowledge."

I thought it raised a good point about rather than just doing your job (whatever it might be), you should try to also try to show a way towards happiness for others with whom you interact. I really don't like the phrase make someone happy as it implies you have control over other people and can just cause them to feel a certain way. If there's one thing I've learning in life regarding interpersonal relationships, it's this: try as you may, you really can't control other people's feelings - it's up to each individual to be happy (or sad, or angry, etc.) on their own. However, you can do your best to show people a way towards feeling happy.

So far I haven't read more than the introduction to this book, so I can't say whether it's good or not, but it's free to read via the web site link I provided above. It's worth a look. Hopefully it doesn't tout the trend of trying to generate happiness in people by giving false phrase and lowering expectations. I still cringe when I recall reading the results of an international study measuring self-esteem and performance of students from different countries. Americans were rated among the highest in regards to self-esteem and confidence in their abilities, yet actually performed near the bottom when tested on actual skills. We definitely don't need books encouraging that form of blind happiness.

Monday, December 11, 2006

A walk to the the seals

The seals are back in town! I assume they've been here for about a month, but I hadn't gone out to Rome Point until today. It was a very mild day and coincidentally a friend of mine was visiting from London, so we took a walk out to spot the seals.

Ok, in the above picture you'd have to have really good eyes to spot the seals - but they are there. The little specks on the right hand edge of the picture are actually seals out on some rocks several hundred yards off the shore. I included this picture just to give an idea of how far away they are.

We walked further up the shore to get a better view, but still even with a 400mm zoom lens they are still pretty far off:

Here's the same picture cropped a bit so you can see abit more detail:

(And as with just about all the photos I post here, you can click on them for a slightly larger view.)

There was no breeze at all, so the bay was like glass. It would have been a perfect day for kayaking.

They were doing some demolition work on the old Jamestown Bridge - I assume the cranes were being used to remove the few remaining pieces. The new bridge is in the foreground.

The large white building is the old mill building I live in. This is a view of it looking back from Rome Point across Bissel Cove.

And just some last snapshots as the sun was setting....

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A rare baking event

For the first time in about a year, I actually baked something at home in the oven:

It's an apple pie, completely made from scratch. Since baking for me is such a rare event, I figured I may as well document it lest no one believe me.

I can't think of a better smell than that of a baking apple pie. Mmmmmmm......

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Loose Change

I've noticed these Coinstar machines at the local supermarket for the past couple years, however I've never used them because they charge a service fee of about 9% of the total value of the coins. I always thought it would be very handy to not have to roll coins, but the 9% fee seemed a bit steep. But, I honestly never set aside the time to roll my coins, so for the past few years I've been accumulating quite a bit of spare change. It was enough to fill one and a half medium-sized laundry detergent bottles.

Well, the other day I noticed the Coinstar machines now offer a free option for cashing in your spare change - if you choose to get the value of the coins as a gift certificate to various online companies (Amazon, Cabelas, and two other I can't remember). Since it's the holday season and I'll most likely be buying gifts for people online, I figured it would be a good time to cash in my change for an Amazon gift certificate. So I trudged (yes trudged - these coins were heavy!) out to the local Stop and Shop and poured the coins into the machine. One neat feature of the process is the machine displays statistics of the coinage as it is counted. So, what does one and a half laundry detergent bottles of coins add up to? I had 164 quarters, 1310 dimes, 761 nickels, and 2872 pennies (yikes! that's a lot of pennies!), giving a grand total of $238.77.

If you have jars of spare change and shop from Amazon or Cabelas (or those other places I can't remember), it might be worth your time to just dump your change in a Coinstar machine instead of rolling it. I've heard some banks offer a similar bulk coin counting service for free to their customers, but mine does not.

I should note that the Coinstar machines also offer an option to donate your change to a list of different non-profit organizations. What I wasn't able to determine was whether Coinstar takes a cut of the money in this case by charging the service fee.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Morning Visitor

I was running slightly late for work this morning, but couldn't resist snapping a quick picture of this sight when I glanced out my living room window. When I say it was right outside my window, I'm not kidding.

The heron was so close I couldn't take a chance and go anywhere near the window for fear of scaring the bird off. I ended up standing halfway up my stairs and used a 400mm telephoto lens. Who would have thought I'd ever being using that lens in close quarters in my livingroom?

Of course, since I took the time to write this, now I'm really late for work.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Wonders of YouTube

The past two days I've been sent links to two very entertaining videos on YouTube.

The first is about 8 minutes long and is an educational video about how to behave in a sushi restaurant in Japan. I know, I know. That doesn't sound very entertaining. But trust me, it's worth watching.

The second video is a music video by OK Go, a band I had never heard of, but whose synchronized performance on six treadmills is a sight to behold. The music's not too bad, either, if you like indie style pop rock. What I found most impressive is the whole 3 minute segment is done with one take. There are no camera cuts. [UPDATE: Apparantly I'm completely out of touch with today's pop culture. Several people have told me this video has been around for a while on TV. Since I don't have a TV, it was new to me.]

Fortune of the Week (5)

Ok, so I skipped a week. I hadn't had Chinese food in a while.

This week's fortune leaves me bemused:

"You should be able to make money and hold on to it."

Is it telling me I'm careless with my finances? Or is it supposed to be a positive message foretelling future monetary gains? Or is it just an observation about money in general - maybe speaking to the physical qualities of printing it. Perhaps it's against things like Paypal and virtual money - only the real cold hard cash will do.

I dunno. I think I just wasted 5 minutes of my life thinking too much about it. I could have been making money, instead.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Revisiting Karate Motivation

I recently stumbled across an interesting article about karate and its origins. The heart of the article focuses on how the main point of karate is not the physical aspects, but the character building that occurs along the way. This quote from the article sums it up nicely:

"Character is the goal. Karate training is simply an excuse for developing character. Blood, sweat and tears are to form the character of the student. Karate is a means to an end.

Character is not one of the benefits of Karate training. It is the goal. Without it, there is no Karate, only athletics."

You can read the full article (which I highly recommend) here. I found it was a refreshing reminder of why I enjoy the karate training so much and why I am thankful to have found a dojo where this character building is truly emphasised by the sensei.