Willena wrote me an e-mail telling me to post something to my blog, so here goes: Since I'm living in Milton Keynes (by myself for the most part), I have to do something with my spare time. So, I bought an unlimited pass to a movie theatre. While I haven't used it as much as I should, I have seen quite a few movies in 2009. My favorite three are An Education, Up in the Air, and Funny People. None of them are classics, but I do occasionally think about them—a sure sign of depth. In contrast, while I enjoyed Avatar's superb action sequences, its bland dialogue and shallow plot lessen its status. An Education features a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan and a strong screenplay by Lynn Barber and Nick Hornby that directly addresses why the sexual revolution needed to happen. Up in the Air has perhaps the best protagonist of any movie in a long time. It certainly helps that he's played by George Clooney, who is known for his natural charisma. But, the plot is also designed to make us, the audience, root for him. While Clooney has deservedly garnered much praise (and awards), similar praise is due Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler for Funny People. It's easy to make the case that they are merely playing themselves to a large degree, but that doesn't diminish the performances in my eyes. While he did not get one, I believe Sandler should have received an Academy nomination for his portrayal. There's much to love, much to pity, and much to loathe about his character.
While I have the chance, I'd also like to single out another 2009 movie. Knowing is the worst movie I've ever seen. I would rather watch From Justin to Kelly twice than see this piece of dreck again. This movie is worse than Contact, my previous bottom of the barrel.
Today I exhibited our work on the DiamondTouch table at the Dana Centre, part of London's Science Museum. It was part of a special event on interactive surfaces organized by Jennifer Sheridan of the London Knowledge Lab. She also arranged to have a videographer there. You can see the video here:
Today I finished a project that has been a long time coming: my second bicycle. When I moved to the UK, I made the decision to switch from car to bicycle as my primary means of conveyance. Partly this was out of necessity (cars are expensive and postdoc pay is what it is), but mostly it was because I wanted to try living without a car. Of course, the big step necessary to make the switch was to buy a commuting / utility bicycle. So, I went to a local store and bought one. It cost around £250 (with a light set, basket, lock, and air pump). Big mistake! I didn't really know what characteristics made for a quality bicycle, so I just let the sales staff point me to something. It turns out that bike was a lemon. After a few rides, I realized that the saddle was way too uncomfortable, so I bought a new one (£20). Then, I realized that the incandescent bulb would only last a few hours on a battery and I replaced it with an LED one (£20). After three months of use, one of the tires had a hole the size of a penny in it. I also got punctures all the time. In the end, I got new tires, a patch kit, and new innertubes (£50). After 6 months, the seat post got stuck and I spent over two hours getting it back to a reasonable position. After one year, the pedals broke (£15). Who knew pedals could be made so badly that they break? A month later, the right pedal arm fell off. It turns out the bottom bracket was broken. I replaced the bottom bracket and the crank set (£45). If you are keeping track, I spent £150 repairing the £250 bike for a total of £400. While that bike is now in fairly good condition, I resent it for all the trouble it cost me. When the opportunity arose, I bought another bike. Bike one will make a good spare for visitors.
I started with a more reputable source. I ordered my second bicycle from the Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative. My fiancée, Kim, bought her bicycle there and the quality was so much better for the same price. When I was looking at their website, they happened to have a bike that was close to what I wanted at a deep discount. I bought a 2008 Revolution Pathfinder Nexus for £280. Considering that the 8-speed Nexus Hub Gear costs £115 by itself, that offer was too good to pass up. I added a good light set for £20. The Pathfinder is fairly well equipped, but it is really optimized for off-road biking, rather than commuting on pavement and gravel. I ended up hating the tires. They were slow and even with a layer of slime guard to protect them, they still got a puncture after a week of riding. To be fair, I live in Milton Keynes where one of the local hobbies seems to be throwing your empty beer bottles on cycle paths. While there are many nice cycle paths, the local council seems to think that planting thorny bushes around those paths is a good idea. When the bushes get trimmed, the thorns lie on the path increasing your chances of getting a puncture by about a 1000%. Given my hate of punctures, I decided to invest in Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, probably the best tires on the market, at £30 per tire. As the Pathfinder was made for off-roading, its gearing is quite low. To fix this, I bought a new rear sprocket (16 teeth instead of the 20 teeth that came with it) for £10. To complete the bike, I replaced the already good pedals with ones that supported bicycle cleats for an extra £50. That brings the total for bike two to £420, surprisingly close to the money I've invested in bike one. From a riding experience, bike two blows bike one away. I really prefer internal hub gears to the derailleur systems that are standard in the UK and USA for their maintainability, simpler interface, and the ability to change gears when stationary. I'm also convinced that all the other bike parts (wheels, fork, brakes, etc.) are of a much better quality. I feel happy when I see bike two. Considering that I use a bicycle almost every day, that's important.
About seven years ago, I said something to the effect of, "we'll see a black president long before we see a woman president." Today, I was proven right. Barack Obama won the US Presidential election. I said the phrase, because I felt that the US is fundamentally less racist than sexist; I still feel that way. For most liberals, being racist is taboo. Many champion minorities based on their minority status, feeling that the support is warranted by current or past injustices. In contrast, it is acceptable and common to be sexist, holding significantly different standards for men and women. Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic primary due to these prejudices. Of course, we'll elect a woman President long before we elect an openly homosexual President. And, the latter will happen before we have an openly atheist President. That summarizes my insights on American prejudices.
Today, we went into London. We saw the amazing exhibit of Egyptian and Greek artifacts available at the British Museum. While Britain was an empire, it robbed these places of their national treasures. Now, you can see them (FOR FREE!). The British Museum also had a cool exhibit of American prints of the early 20th century. I particularly liked the prints of Martin Lewis for their sense of motion and dramatic shadows.
Somewhat sad news today: My grandmother died. She was 95. In many ways, this was a relief, since Alzheimer's had claimed her a long time ago. But still, I am sad. Since this is the official goodbye, I am reminded of the time when she was funny and joyful (even if that time had long since passed).
I visited Mike Tehranchi, a high-school friend, at Cambridge. He's a fellow at Trinity College, so I got the insider's tour. It was a bit like being in the Harry Potter films. We did many of the traditional Cambridge things: high table dinner, bowling, punting, etc. It's an interesting place.
I recently moved to Milton Keynes, UK, for a postdoc at the Open University. On Saturday, I had a house warming party, since I was finally all moved in and organized. Here are pictures of the new flat:
The flat is in a newly built district called the Hub. It's so new that I'm the first tenant for this flat. That's both good (everything is shiny and new) and bad (I had to pay and install the bathroom fixtures). The Hub is conveniently located halfway between the rail/bus station and the big mall. Rent is quite high (£675 per month), but the location is worth it. As some of you may realize from the pictures above, I've accomplished one of my lifelong goals—I own a pony chair. Whee!