Two Laptops

The XPS 13 arrived today, so I am now on a 2-laptop setup: one for portability, and one for performance.

2013-05-08 01.49.59
An XPS 13 (left) and an Alienware M17x (right).

For a size comparison, that is a Galaxy S3 sitting in front of the Alienware. The XPS 13 weighs 3.0 lbs, while the Alienware weighs 9.4 lbs. Below are the specs of the XPS 13 (and here is a link to the Alienware specs):

 Model Dell XPS 13
Picture XPS-13
Bought May 2013
Purchase Cost $575
Processor Intel Core i5 3317U @ 1.7 GHz
RAM 4 GB (2×2 GB)
Primary Storage 128 GB Solid State Drive
Graphics Card Intel HD Graphics 4000
Operating System Windows 8
Screen (Resolution) 13.3″ HD Widescreen (1366×768)
Wireless Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235

The Daily Stumble #1: Slow Time

I’m starting a series where I take the 5th Stumble of the day and write a blog post about it. Why the 5th one? I don’t know, why not?

Today’s 5th stumble is: 20 Things that Are Way Better in Slow Motion – [link], from the site BuzzFeed.

Note: I’m going to take a screenshot of every page I stumble for this series, just in case the link breaks in the future. This way, someone reading my blog can still see what I am referring to.

This random stumble is very coincidental, considering my last blog post was about Light in Slow Motion. What are the chances?

Anyways, the site itself has a variety of interesting events happening in slow motion: the popping of popcorn, the impact of a bullet, the lighting of a match, and the hitting of a drum. But the most epic one on this site is definitely the lightning strike:

That just looks insane. When we look at things in slow motion, we see shapes and patterns that are otherwise never observe. We discover physical phenomena that seem impossible to our natural human-time intuition.

At this scale, things happen at time scales so short that that particles zap in and out of existence in billionths of a second. In just a blink of an eye, entire universes of particles have appeared and disappeared, entire realities created and destroyed.

Of course, even one billionth of a second is an eternity compared to events that are predicted to have occurred at the onset of the Big Bang. Such events occurred at 10^-34 of a second, or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001 second.

It is indeed interesting to watch man-made objects such as bullets and golf balls in slow motion. But it is far more fascinating to watch nature, whether it is lightning, atomic collisions, and even light itself, move in slow time.

The list for The Daily Stumble series is found here.

Cars and Time Management (And Not How They Are Related)

This article is overdue by over one and a half months. In December 2010, I was writing a post each day on a topic chosen by another person. There were two topics that I didn’t get to: cars and time management, chosen by Greg T. (Westwood HS) and Sandeep P. (University of North Dakota) respectively. I’ll start with cars.

I really don’t have much to say about cars. In this case I’ll make some bullets.

  • ground-based motored vehicles
  • fast, at least compared to walking
  • fun to drive in
  • max speed I’ve been in a car: 100 mph, though not as the driver
  • number of cars I’ve driven: 2
  • new cars are shiny
  • this is the obligatory point about pollution and global warming
  • longest drive I’ve been in: 1015 miles (Austin, TX to Orlando, FL)
  • I’ve never been pulled over or ticketed, but this statement will probably jinx it
  • the first time I’ve been in a car, I might have been 4. This is because I spent my first few years in a fairly poor area in China where nobody owned a car (we moved to the US when I was 4)
  • that distinctive new car smell?
  • my typical driving speed is 100-120% of the speed limit.
  • in traffic jams, I drive on the exit lane at a slow but constant rate, leaving a wide gap between me and the person in front of me (this type of driving theoretically and sometimes empirically solves the mathematical problem  of stop-and-go traffic jams; it works by allowing people entering or exiting the exit lane to switch lanes easily, i.e. without stop-and go, which would have full-stopped not only them, but the entire lane behind that car and the lane which that car is switching to)
    • Yep, I claim responsibility to three partial clearings of the I-35 northbound rush hour jam in downtown Austin
  • Greg was insistent that this post be excellent, so here’s a picture of his car for good measure

You can click the picture to get an epic zoom of it, complete with a silhouette of myself and two other people in the reflection, next to the sun.

The second topic, ironically, is time management. (Which, if I could successfully pull off, this article would have been posted last year.)

About time management, here are 6 tips for squeezing the most out of your time:

  1. Know what you’re doing. If you are unsure of what you’re doing with your time, then you can’t really make much of it. Don’t say, “I want to do something for the next hour.” Know what that “something” is.
  2. Plan your task as specifically as possible. Know the “something” to as much detail as possible. If you’re writing an essay, it could quite paradoxically save valuable time to plan out the arguments, evidence, and organization first. This is because when you’re brain is actually engaged on the task, it will have better focus on what it is supposed to be doing.
  3. Distract yourself, but not too much. As I said about superproductivity, having too few distractions can sometimes be harmful to productivity. But don’t have too many either. (See #6.)
  4. Let others know what you are doing. This is what got me through NaNoWriMo this year. Every few days in November I posted my current word count as my Facebook status, and the responses kept me going..
  5. Have a schedule. Whether this should be specific or not will depend on what type of person you are. Make sure you have at least have some rough idea of when things are to be done.
  6. DON’T HAVE STUMBLEUPON OPEN.

The Blue Danube

Without music, life would be an error.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Today’s topic of music was chosen by Jonathan C at UT Austin. He is also QUITE a musician, unlike me.

There is so much to say about music, and I’m afraid this is too broad a topic, so this post will focus on one piece in particular: “The Blue Danube” (“An der schönen blauen Donau”), an Austrian waltz composed by the Johann Strauss II in 1866.

The following video shows the Vienna Philharmonic performing the piece in their 2010 New Year’s Concert.

Now the next is from a certain film (which is ironically the one that popularized this piece), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without music, this scene would certainly not have succeeded.

This must be one of the most artistic scenes of all time.

The Basics of Recursion vs Iteration

Today’s topic was chosen by Prad N, who attends UT Austin. The original topic as proposed was “recursion vs iteration with stacks”; however, that is a fairly narrow—and somewhat technical—topic, so this blog post will discuss recursion and plain old iteration.

First off, recursion and iteration are terms used in computer science. Iteration, essentially, is a process by which you count something or carry out a number of steps, in order. For instance, if you want to write a program that subtracts one dollar from every bank account in the world and adds it to your own, you would be illicitly iterating through a bunch of bank accounts.

Recursion is a process by which something refers to itself, such as this sentence.

That would be called a recursive sentence, because of the phrase “this sentence.” In logic, recursion can lead to paradoxes, such as “This sentence is false.” Anyways…

In computer programming, recursion is when a function calls itself. Here’s an example. Say you write a program that has three steps, A, B, and then C. If the program just executes them in order, it would be iterative. But suppose in step A, one of the things to do is to run step A. That is recursion.

But wait, you say! If one of the things to do in step A is to do step A, wouldn’t that require another run of step A, and wouldn’t that one as well, etc.? If done poorly, recursion can do this. The program would never end.

For a real example, consider the mathematical factorial function,

n! = n(n-1)(n-2)\cdots(3)(2)(1)

There is a recursive way to define the function, namely that

n! = n\cdot(n-1)!

There is something missing here, however, and it is that it has no endpoint. If we wanted to figure out 3! using this method, we find that it is equal to 3*2! = 3*2*1! = 3*2*1*0! = …. Of course, we want to make it clear that 1! = 1. So the recursive definition must have both a formula AND a way to end:

n! = n\cdot(n-1)!, 1! = 1

In Java, we would have something like this:

int factorial(int n) {
  if (n==1) return 1;
  return n * factorial(n-1);
}

Here’s what it’s doing in English. Suppose you input the number 4.  It will run the line starting with “if”, and because 4 does not equal 1, it will move on to the next line. This tells the function to return n * factorial(n-1), which is, in this case, 4 * factorial(3). But factorial(3) is just 3 * factorial(2), Using substitution, we have factorial(4) = 4 * factorial(3) = 4 * 3 * factorial(2). Continuing on, we have factorial(2) = 2 * factorial(1). Here is the ending step, because factorial(1) will trigger the “if” condition and cause it to run “return 1” and skip the recursive line. So 4 * 3 * factorial(2) = 4 * 3 * 2 * factorial(1) = 4 * 3 * 2 * 1. At this point, the computer will just calculate the product and spit out 24.

Of course, one can do it iteratively as well:

int factorial(int n) {
  int i = 1;
  int product = 1;
  while(i < n) {
    i = i + 1;
    product = product * i;
  }
  return product;
}

I won’t explain it in full this time. The idea is that it multiplies all the integers from 1 up to the number you input. The two algorithms do essentially the same thing, but one does it by calling itself and other other by running a loop. Recursion is usually more fun.

Blizzard Servers: Cataclysm

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, the game’s third expansion, was released on North American servers approximately 20 minutes ago.

Just before the release, some areas became super-crowded. To experience the new content, one had to exit and re-login. I snapped a few screenshots (with 2 characters) at Stormwind City’s Gryphon Roost just before I exited.

I have not been able to log in (I’ve been trying, about two login attempts for every sentence in this post). There are simply too many people trying to do the same, and Blizzard’s servers are unable to handle this load.

For the screenshots, I took one of Cataclysm’s new features: flying in Azeroth, the mainlands of the world. A person with Cataclysm and a level 60+ character may purchase (using in-game gold) a flight license at, for example, Stormwind.

A screenshot of Stormwind’s Gryphon Roost taken 14 minutes before the launch:

Here’s another, with the UI removed:

Following are some taken just a minute before release, just to show how crowded a video game can be:

That’s just one little area, in one city, in one realm.

Edit: I was able to log in at approximately 31 minutes after release.

Here’s a screenshot of Stormwind from the air:

One Day, and One Day Only

It was that eerie hour after midnight when Sam Reshevsky, who was tired of having worried over the composition of a poem all day, and just about to give up on it, saw a magical portal appear in the center of his room to another world. In he went through the radiant neon frame, and what he saw on the other side was a vast jungle that stretched endlessly in every direction.

More and more, Sam spent his free time each night exploring this world. An undisturbed and beautiful place, it had a calming atmosphere—perfect for writing poetry—and it smelled fresh always, as the vegetation created the most soothing atmosphere he ever knew. Then there were the creatures, which had almost dreamlike appearances: birds that changed colors and flew without resting, insects that grew larger than an encyclopedic tome, and, most of all, wisps of light that emanated a brilliant white shine.

When he returned to his room each night, Sam felt always more energetic and never tired; and, however much time he spent in the portal, the sun would be just rising in his original world, so he would go from writing poetry in the jungle to writing it in his room. When was the last time he had slept? Or talked to anyone?

Soon the portal began to appear at day as well as at night, and Sam would enter it every chance he had, for nothing in his room could be more interesting than the mythic jungle that was a portal entrance away. And the jungle would change every time he entered—every time he started in a different place, where he saw different trees, different creatures, but always, though, with the same wisps.

The noble wisps were ancient, and they held unbounded wisdom. Sam began to communicate with them, for they were much able to improve his poetry and knowledge about the world. One after another, his notebooks began to fill up with genuine poetry, and this led him to visit the jungle even more.

In the middle of the jungle was a temple, and, though it was in ruins, it was clearly not as ancient as the wisps that always hovered around it. When Sam happened to enter the temple, he saw a set of stone stairs descending well below the earth. But he did not go down them—the jungle was so plentiful a world that any world beyond it was unnecessary.

On one afternoon a knock on the door startled Sam into the real world, and he was reluctant at first to answer it. Trudging out of his room, and across the living room to where the main hall was, he thought, Why should I have to walk so far to open the door? After what seemed like half an hour, he peeked through the door hole and saw that it was Adela, his sister, who was reminding him about a family dinner planned for that night. He said he couldn’t go. She asked why. He said it would take too long to explain. She left disappointedly.

But he was right. There was no way he could waste an hour, let alone three, on a matter as trivial as dinner. The jungle was where he needed to be, and every second in there was worth a minute outside.

That’s what it had seemed at first.

As months passed by, Sam saw that the jungle grew less exotic, the creatures less energetic, and the wisps less bright. Just now, he was not writing a poem—he was conversing with a wisp on the philosophy of dreams, but he was not quite sure whether the wisp was real, for when he reached to grab it, his hand passed through without being affected the slightest.

It was then that the poet grew tired of the wisps and marched to the temple, which he had for so long avoided. The structure was not eroded any more than it was when Sam first entered the jungle—in fact, it seemed more complex, and there were now hieroglyphs and inscriptions upon the walls that were not there before. At the center of the temple were the stone stairs, which led to an abyss that he could not see all the way down. What could be down there—could it be as horrid as the wisps say? Sam took a full, deep breath, and descended into the darkness.

The world slowly changed from the green leaves into the gray walls, and then into the black shadows. Sam descended for a long time, until the steps abruptly stopped—causing him to trip, falling sprawled upon the stone floor. This created a thud that echoed no less than eight or nine times around his confines.

When, after a long moment, the noise receded, there appeared in front of him a maze: the entrance was arch that shined with a ghastly blue glow. This was enough so that Sam could see the dark blood running from his nose, and yet, he felt no pain—and, as soon as he looked again, the blood was gone! Perhaps it had been an illusion, he thought.

He lifted his hand to feel whether his nose was wet, but there was nothing to be felt. Neither could he smell nor taste it.

“What use is this?” he thought. “This is a world that does trick the senses. The wisps have warned me about such a place: ‘A maze you cannot escape!’ O, how I wish to return to the world above!”

And, as if the environment could read his mind, the Sun passed vertically overhead, and beamed straight down through the staircase, so that Sam could easily find his way back up. He formulated a plan: first, he would climb to the surface and ask the wisps what exactly this place was and why it was here, and then, he would do whatever it would take to make sure nobody who passed through would enter it.

Suddenly, a loud but soothing voice propagated from beyond the arch.

“Poet! If it is knowledge that you desire and success that you seek, go not to the jungle spirits. They know only so much, for they are a puddle, and we are the sea!”

“A sea?”

“Of infinite curiosity!”

But as Sam peered beyond the arch—an immense plane of darkness—he saw and heard nothing resembling the sea.

“I shall not enter.”

“To enter is the only way out,” the Voice said, and as it said this, the Sun had finished passing over; it had completely disappeared from view, and down where Sam was at the bottom of the staircase, it was once again a void of utter darkness.

Sam tried anyways to climb up the stairs. But the higher he climbed, the more difficult it was. Each step took a supreme effort; he rested for several seconds between each one, and halfway up, he simply stopped, short on breath, too exhausted to rise any further.

“All right, I will enter the maze for one day, and one day only!” said Sam reluctantly.

Almost effortlessly, he descended to the bottom of the staircase, and stood in front of the arch once again.

*

Sam pondered for a long time. On his mind was the most important goal: to never be lost. He would use his poetry book to keep track of all his movements, turns, and reverses in the maze. He would document every step with perfection. He would create a map of everything in it. He would always have a way out.

With this in mind, he took a deep breath and stepped forward into the maze.

As soon as he entered, the cold, gray walls around him began to change—they were stationary, but carved patterns began to appear on them, hieroglyphs of an earlier time, all illuminated by a background whose gray was turning blue. Surprisingly, he could read the hieroglyphs. They were written in all languages, ancient and new, classical and exotic, but nonetheless, he could read them.

On the wall next to him was the text of all the Greek myths. It had Zeus and Achilles and Aphrodite and Perseus. And not only was there text—images of Greek heroes and villains flashed across the wall, sometimes in battle, sometimes in idle. Sometimes, the images themselves would appear to be moving. But Sam did not think so, for this world tricked the senses far too much already.

After wandering in the maze for ages, Sam was still swimming in the sea of ancient Greece. Fascinating, he thought. But as the day passed on, his mind grew weary of Greece and desired to know more about everything else. And so, saying goodbye to Homer and Theseus (after all, they both looked the same in the wall), and their retinue, Sam studied his map and started to backtrack to the entrance.

He took not two turns before he reached a dead end. Yet here was clearly an open path on his illustration! He made sure he had made the right turns, and checked his entire path twice, coming to the same dead end every time. I am no cartographer, thought Sam. But something is obviously not right.

“Let me out at once!” said Sam defiantly, towards no particular direction. “I have explored your maze, and though I see infinite curiosity, I wish to return to my world.”

The reverberating Voice responded: “Did you not say you would enter for one day?”

“Yes, but I have changed my mind! I no longer wish to stay.” But as Sam said this, he was almost trembling.

“One day. At the end of this day I will let you free,” the Voice reasoned sincerely. “You must explore further before you decide.”

“Fine,” replied Sam. “One day, and one day only.”

Against his conscience, Sam turned again, continuing deeper into the maze.

As he walked through the maze, the walls changed again and again. The Greek myths had transformed into modern politics, and then into a map of the world. He moved on, navigating through the structure with utmost care.

The walls were so captivating that he read each one completely, and he was not quite sure how this was possible, but somehow, he did. Even more absorbing were the images, when the carvings depicted not words, but pictures, and even more than that were the moving ones. The blue, stone walls changed before his very eyes. And in these pictures he would hear different things, not quite real, but as if somebody were whispering in his head. It was not the Voice. The Voice spoke very loudly and directly at him, but these sounds were different. They had no voice behind them, just meanings.

Eventually he reached a wall upon which a list of recent poems was inscribed. At once, Sam recognized his own name, next to several poems he had written while in the jungle world. One of them was “Jungle on a Green Day.” It had been one of the poems of which he was most proud. After reading it several times, though, and seeing the work of other poets, he began to wonder whether the jungle world really helped him write poetry at all.

“Jungle on a Green Day” wasn’t bad, he thought. But it wasn’t good either. It was something that anyone, given enough patience and interest in poetry, could write. Its rhythm worked, it painted enough scenery, and it had a sufficient effect, though not quite enough. There was no strict measurement, only that it wasn’t good enough.

He continued to navigate the maze. Suddenly, it struck him that he had stopped drawing! The map went to only places that he had explored in the first hours, but after that, it was an absolute blank.

It didn’t matter though. Sam seemed to know the maze by intuition, and he could go from any wall to any other without needing a map to follow.

Finally, it had been one day, and Sam walked back to the staircase (without using his map), and went through the portal, which was not in the jungle as before. It rested instead at the bottom of the staircase, so that in entering or exiting the maze, there would be no effort wasted in stair-climbing.

*

So this was how Sam spent his time. He explored the maze by day and wrote his poetry by night. The more he spent in the maze, the more he learned, and his poetry received ever greater acclaim and grew ever more popular. He was invited to readings and to speeches, and soon, readers of his poems began to send him mail that he did not have time to read. He didn’t have enough time to give speeches either; his life of solitude inside the maze dominated his character outside it.

In a year after first stepping into the maze, Sam was the most famous poet in the nation. But he disliked this, and ever more, he wanted to stay in the maze and not return.

One day there was a knock on the door.

Just another follower, he thought. Dragging himself to the door, Sam thought about the time he could be spending in the maze instead. But when he peeked outside, he saw it was Adela again. The door was promptly opened. He told her he didn’t have any time, but his sister replied that something had happened. Had someone found out about the portal? No, it was the president—he wanted to speak with Sam, inviting him to dinner. I’m too busy, Sam said. Then at least write him a poem. Alright, I shall. Adela left.

But even as Sam said that, he knew he was not in the mood to write a poem for the president. So he entered the maze, and asked the maze to write a poem for him. Immediately there formed along the walls of the maze a poem—quite an eloquent one—and Sam copied it down into his notebook. Then he returned outside and published it, hoping that would satisfy public relations for the next week.

He could not believe what happened next. Another poet claimed that she wrote the poem first. Sam told everyone he had not copied from anyone, and yet, the other poet was insistent that it was hers. And the press agreed with her. Soon, he was exposed to be a fraud, a plagiarist of poetry.

Angrily, he went through the portal, entered the maze, and spoke to the Voice:

“Why is this? My life’s work is ruined because everyone thinks I’m a thief.”

“But in a way, you are. Though you are in this sea of curiosity, you are not alone. Others, like you, have come here before. Many of them are in here with you right now.”

The walls turned into glass, and Sam could see, as far as he could in the dim, blue light, dozens of people wandering around the maze. And yet he had never encountered another person in the maze in the last year.

“If you are wondering why you haven’t seen them, it is because of the maze’s design. Each person has a section of the maze to oneself. The walls shift enough times so that anyone will be able to view any wall, but everyone still has a personal section.

“But my life is destroyed! O poor souls in this maze, if only they knew it was an illusion, if only they knew. You are nothing but a demon. The maze is a temptation, and nothing more. No, I will leave this place and never return.”

“Where will you go?”

“Above this maze, demon, is a different world, a jungle of noble spirits. That world is free and uncorrupted. It is a world you shall not enter.”

The Voice laughed heartily.

“Many have said that before you. They all mention a civilized jungle world. But they have all returned. I warn you: you find that your perceptions will change.”

“Perceptions changing or not, I shall leave and never return!”

With that, Sam dashed for the staircase. He began to climb, and like before, as his altitude increased, so did the effort required to climb any higher. His eyes were unused to the light that was becoming brighter as he ascended. He was approaching the top, and now, each step required all the energy he had. When, finally, he reached the surface of the temple, he fell upon the ground, feeling more victorious than he had ever felt before—for a moment. When he glanced around himself, he did not see any wisps or mystical creatures or trees. Instead, he was on a barren beach, with the ocean on one side and a brown and even more endless desert on the other. There was nothing else. The only thing that separated the ocean from the desert was a narrow strip of golden shore. Sam clawed up a handful of it, but realized they were not of his world. In his mind appeared a poem that he had read many years ago:

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! Yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! Can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?

Sam could not remember the remaining lines. Did they matter, or was the poem even relevant? No, despite the goldenness of the sand, it would carry no significance—it was just sand.

Reluctantly, he took one last look at the portal world and returned home.

*

Life, so to speak, returned to normal. The plagiarism case was mostly forgotten, as the poet who had accused him of plagiarizing was herself caught plagiarizing, and the press focused on her instead. Sam’s poetry focused more and more on meaning of reality, and he grew revered once again.

Fifty years after he left the maze, after having gone through as many of life’s experiences as he could, he had run out of ideas and interest in writing poetry. One day, as he was reflecting over some events of his life, a shimmer of the past appeared before him, in the form of a neon portal. Smiling, he entered the portal into the golden beach, descended the staircase—very slowly at that—and gazed once more at the maze which had once destroyed him.

An overwhelming sense of nostalgia struck Sam. He felt compelled to go in once again. This time, there was nothing holding him back. Plus, had the maze not offered him immense knowledge and satisfied his curiosity before? He gazed forward.

“I will enter this maze,” said Sam, “for one day, and one day only.”