Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Taste of Unitarian Universalism

In Episode 32 of Six Feet Under, Nate and Lisa go camping with another couple and the other couple tells them about this chruch they go to that is for anyone of any religion, including athiests. The religion they practice - if you could call it a religion - is Unitarian Universalism.

I'm not religious, and I've often felt that by not being part of a religious community, I am denied the increased social capital that comes with being part of such a community. That sentiment along with a curiosity for what an inter-faith church was like led me and my wife to attend a service this morning at the The Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica.

It was an interesting experience. It was held in a room that looked like a traditional Christian church with a low center stage, multiple rows of pews, and a center aisle. The left wall had religious symbols of all the major religions. There was a piano and organ that sounded like a traditional church organ. The service began with some classical music performed by the pianist and a talented young oboe player. Then the minister welcomed everyone and explained that their congregation welcomes people of all faiths, races, national origins, and sexual preferences. It sounded like a statement about the groups you can't discriminate against when renting out an apartment :).

The topic of the service was "What We Grieve". There was some group singing, some more instrumental music, and an announcement of the joys and sorrows that individuals of the congregations experienced recently. One woman shared her feelings about her recent loss of her husband to cancer. There was also a 4-minute moment of silence to remember lost loved ones. During the silence, the whole room could hear the snoring of an older man Norm that was seated next to us. I found that entertaining.

Another part of the service involved the reading of a story called The Mustard Seed during which all the children went to the stage and gathered around the minister. After that, the children left the room to attend some kind of religious exploration class while their parents stayed behind for some more music and a reading from the book The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

Like I said, it was an interesting experience, and I think I share all the UU values (which seem similar to basic Humanism), but I'm not sure if I'll ever go back. Despite not one mention of God or any overly religious practices, the whole thing felt - I don't know - almost a little creepy or cultish. It definitely felt like going to church. I have a feeling this kind of thing really appeals to people who were raised with religion, don't buy into their religion, but want to have that whole church-going experience in their adult lives to feel good about themselves. That sounds kind of sarcastic, but I don't mean it to be. I think it is a good thing for people.

After the service, we went to the Urth Cafe on Main St. for breakfast and coffee. That place was totally packed - we could barely get a table. I don't know if I'll go back there either because the food and coffee weren't much better than other places, and it wasn't very relaxing since there were people eyeing our table so they could snatch it right as we got up to leave.

Overall, it was a nice to do something a little different this Sunday morning.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

One Page Resumes

In college, I was taught in resume workshops that you should always try to keep your resume to one page long, unless you had post-graduate academic research to showcase, in which case it was okay to go as long as two pages. I think the reason was that a one-page resume would be more concise and would be able to convey to a hiring manager what you were all about at a glance.

I used a one-page resume when I interviewed with my current employer. I summed up my job experiences with technology acronyms and pretty general statements about my responsibilities. I figured that I could get into more details during the interview. I got the job, but I found out later that a lot of people were skeptical about me since my resume was so short. Apparently, other people with the same amount of experience as me (about 11 years work experience) are submitting resumes that are at least two pages long, sometimes more. I was also told that I have a lot more experience than my resume indicated.

I talked to one of my employer's recruiters about this and he told me that I shouldn't be concerned with keeping my resume to one page. Two or more pages are normal. Today I tried to rewrite and update my resume using as many words as I wanted. Even still, I barely ended up with two pages. I guess I am not very good at writing resumes. I need help. Luckily, I'm not actively looking for another job right now.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Planned Trip to Portland

Woohoo! I just booked a 3-day weekend trip to Portland in late March. I'll be visiting my brother-in-law, enjoying the city and a little nature, going to some jazz clubs, looking at real estate investment opportunities and relaxing! I have been to Portland once before many years ago, also for a short vacation. I think I'm going to enjoy it more this time because I've grown to appreciate cities with good public transit and Portland is one of those cities. The light rail system, MAX, is well-known and within the Portland Transit Mall, there are many bus and rail options.

I occasionally listen to a podcast called Portland Jazz Jams which is hosted by Darren Littlejohn. It is about the Portland jazz scene and has interviews with local Portland jazz musicians and features recordings of Portland jam sessions. I'm hoping to have time to go to at least one jazz club and possibly see one of those jam sessions that airs on the podcast.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Best and Worst of American Idol 2006

After hearing the 24 finalists of this year's American Idol, I have chosen my most favorite and least favorite contestants of the girls and the boys:

My Favorite: Paris Bennett, Taylor Hicks

I think Paris and Taylor have the most talent and genuine love for music. They each have a full voice, great intonation, and are the most original and musical as far as phrasing goes. I'd like to see those two go to the finals.

That being said, Paris is young and may be a little too energetic and cute to the point of being annoying. I couldn't stand watching American Idol's Diana DeGarmo for that reason. I don't know if Taylor has the right image to get himself enough votes from the viewers. America might find him a little too eccentric.

My Least Favorite: Brenna Gethers, Bobby Bennett

Brenna is just plain annoying. I think each year they pick someone like her on purpose just to annoy us. Her equivalent from last year is Mikalah Gordon. Bobby was just bad. I can't believe he made it this far. There had to be many other male contestants who were better than him.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Axis at Union Station

A friend of mine is thinking about buying a condo at the new Axis at Union Station. This new development of studios and 1 and 2 bedroom condos is located in Downtown LA adjacent to Union Station and Olvera Street. I passed by there this past weekend to check it out. It is still under construction, so I couldn't see the inside. The location is awesome. It is literally across the street from Union Station which means you have easy access to the Gold Line, Red Line, and of course Metrolink and Amtrak. You can easily walk to China Town or anywhere downtown. It would be a simple train ride to Old Town Pasadena, Hollywood, or even San Diego! It would be a dream for a transit rider like me.

I guess I could think about moving there myself, but I would find it hard to give up the west side ocean breezes, the single family home with a yard for the dog, and the laid back vibe of nearby Venice Beach.

I am wondering if getting one of the new condos would be a good investment. With the way Downtown LA is shaping up, it is almost certain that it will appreciate and be easy to rent. And if I own a unit there, I would always have to option of moving into it in the future. I will look into this.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Swiss Chard, Garlic, Olive Oil

I planted Swiss Chard in my garden a few months ago, and now, after some recent rains, it is growing huge! The leaves are each about 12 inches long and 6 inches wide. I have the kind with red stems like the one shown in this picture.

Usually, I add it to salads, but last night, I tried something new that my mother suggested. I chopped up the Swiss Chard leaves into 2 inch by 2 inch squares and the stems into little pieces. Then I sauted both the leaves and the stems with olive oil and garlic and added a little salt and pepper. It was simple and tasty.

Olive oil and garlic is such an amazing combination. You can pretty much saute anything in olive oil and garlic and it is sure to taste and smell good.

Swiss Chard is known to be very healthy. It is high in vitamins K, A, and C, and is great for your bones and preventing certain types of cancer. According to
If vegetables got grades for traditional nutrients alone, Swiss chard would be the vegetable valedictorian. [It earns] excellent marks for its concentrations of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, potassium, iron, vitamin E, and dietary fiber. Swiss chard also emerges as a very good source of copper, calcium, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, protein, phosphorous, vitamin B1, zinc, folate, biotin, niacin and pantothenic acid.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Antonio's Vision for LA

On the front page of yesterday's L.A. Times, there was an article about mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's vision for the future of Los Angeles: Tall, Green, Vital: L.A. as Mayor Dreams It. For me it was very encouraging because I share his vision and would be thrilled to see it take shape. He talked about a denser urban core, increased public transportation, light rail to the ocean, transit-oriented development projects, and more green spaces.

I am curious how the general population in Los Angeles will feel about his vision of the city. For most people, it seems that any new development is bad because people immediately translate that idea into one that brings more traffic. I can understand the concern given the fact that LA is in gridlock during commuting hours, but looking long term, more density makes it possible to live more of your life in a smaller area, and supports public transit opportunities.

I find it amusing that people are using the term New Urbanism to describe a way of designing mixed-use communities that promote walking and use of public transit. Isn't this style of urban planning hundreds of years old? Almost every city built before the rise of the automobile has the characteristics promoted in New Urbanism. It should probably be called Old Urbanism. I guess it has to be called New in order to sell it as the future.

Impressed by Skype

Even though it has been around for over 3 years, I just got around to trying out Skype, an internet phone service where you can make calls for free from one computer to another. I have to say, I was really impressed with the sound quality. As long as both sides of the conversation wear a headset with a microphone, it sounds just as good as a real phone call. Without a headset, it still works fine, but the other person sounds like they're in an amphitheater.

I tried it out with my mother and brother and we were able to have a 3-way conversation easily. My parents were amazed that the service is free and are now going to start spreading the news to all their friends and family. In fact, they immediately called my uncle who is going to be traveling to the Philippines, and told him to get it set up so he can talk to his wife back at home.

My brother has a webcam and Skype is able to offer video as well, but it doesn't appear to work in a conference situation. It has to be a one-on-one call. I think if you pay for a premium Skype service, you might get the ability to see multiple webcams in a conference call.

If you want to try out Skype with me, let me know...

Friday, February 17, 2006

Put GPS on buses!

Waiting a long time at a bus stop can be a major deterrent for people. There is always this feeling of uncertainty. How long will I have to wait here? Have I missed the last bus? I think the situation could be improved so much if it was possible to know exactly how long it would be until the next bus arrives. It would put you at ease. If you knew, for example, that the bus is 20 minutes away, you could go buy a cup of coffee or visit the ATM, and then come back. Or you could take out a book and start reading, knowing that there would be enough time to get into it.

I have often thought: Why can't we just put GPS receivers on the buses, have them transmit their positions back to some central system, and then make the information available online and maybe even on electronic displays at the bus stops themselves? If it was online and publicly available, people could develop 3rd party applications that would serve that data to your Palm Pilot, cell phone, or laptop. It could be integrated with Google Maps. Man, that would be awesome.

There is a company, NextBus, that appears to be doing this already for some municipalities. I am dying for their technology to come to Los Angeles. Please, please, please! I think I'm going to write a letter to Bill Rosendahl and Antonio Villaraigosa urging them to get our transit systems to implement this.

Narnia Rap Battles

Last December, I posted about how much I enjoyed the Chronic of Narnia Rap from SNL starring Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg. I found out that other people have been creating similar rap videos to simultaneously parody and honor the original. They aren't as funny, but still worth watching. Here are the ones I've found so far in order of decreasing quality:
Man, I think that even I could have done better than that last one :)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Blog Management

I am curious how people manage their blog reading. When I first started reading blogs, I would just bookmark them and occasionally visit all the bookmarked web sites to see if anything new has showed up. This quickly became too difficult as the number of blogs I was interested in grew. I wasted time visiting blog sites that have not added any new content to read.

The next solution I tried is Sage, a feed reader extension for Firefox. Sage shows up as a side panel in the browser. You can add blogs to it just by bookmarking their feed URL's (usually RSS or Atom). Then you can click on a blog entry to read the latest posts or see which posts you haven't read yet. Sage is simple and easy to use, but you have to install it on every computer you use and the status of new posts isn't maintained between them.

Finally I found Bloglines, a website that, like Sage, aggregates multiple blog feeds. The thing I like about Bloglines is that the user interface is nice and clean, you can easily see all your unread blog posts, and the state of what's new stays with you if you move from computer to computer.

If you know of any better blog aggregators, please comment.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bollentines Day

Instead of trying to get a reservation at a restaurant tonight, my wife and I decided to plan a quiet evening together at home. I don't know exactly how it ended up this way, but the night had sort of an Indian theme. I cooked one of our favorite meals, Aloo Gobi, which is a combination of potatoes and cauliflower in a yellow curry. During dinner, we put on The Best of Bollywood CD.

I've made the Aloo Gobi at least 3 times before. I got the recipe by watching the Who Wants to Cook Aloo Gobi featurette on the Bend It Like Beckham DVD in which the director, Gurinder Chadha, gives a cooking lesson while her mother and auntie criticize her as she prepares and cooks the food. I found it really funny. Anyway, I wrote down all the ingredients and took notes on all her cooking tips. It comes out delicious and smells great every time. I can get all the ingredients at my local India Sweets & Spices grocery store in Culver City. Here is the recipe if you're interested:

Who Wants to Cook Aloo Gobi?
by Gurinder Chadha,
the director of Bend it like Beckham
(from Bend it like Beckham DVD)

This recipe serves 2-3.

Ingredients and Preparation
Vegetable oil
1 large onion, peeled and cut into small pieces
Large bunch of fresh coriander, separated into stalks and leaves and roughly chopped
Small green chilies , chopped into small pieces
1 large cauliflower (gobi), leaves removed and cut evenly into eights
3 large potatoes (aloo), peeled and cut into even pieces
1 tin (can) of whole, peeled tomatoes, grated
Fresh ginger, peeled and grated
Fresh garlic, chopped

Cumin Seeds
Garam Masala
Paprika (optional)

Making the Curry Sauce
Heat half a cup of vegetable oil in a large saucepan
Add the chopped onion and one tablespoon of cumin seeds to the oil
Stir together and cook until onions become creamy, golden and translucent
Add chopped coriander stalks, two teaspoons of turmeric and two teaspoons of salt
Add paprika for color (optional)
Add chopped chilies (according to taste)
Stir grated tomatoes into the onion mixture
Add ginger, garlic and mix thoroughly

From Sauce to Aloo Gobi
Add potatoes and cauliflower to the sauce plus a few tablespoons of water (ensuring that the mixture doesn't stick to the saucepan)
Ensure that the potatoes and cauliflower are coated with the curry sauce
Cover and allow to simmer for twenty minutes (or until potatoes are cooked)
Add two teaspoons of Garam Masala and stir
Sprinkle chopped coriander leaves on top of the curry
Turn off the heat, cover and leave for as long as possible before serving

With leftovers, make Toasted Aloo Gobi sandwiches:
Cold Aloo Gobi, two slices white bread, butter
Make in toaster oven

Monday, February 13, 2006

Pandora vs. LAUNCHcast

In the last few days, I have been addicted to Pandora, a free music streaming application that takes advantage of the data collected in the Music Genome Project. Musicians and technologists got together and analyzed the musical qualities of many recordings, taking note of their physical qualities such as melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and vocal qualities. You tell Pandora some artists or songs you like, and it uses this data to find other songs it thinks you will like and then plays them for you. You then can indicate for each song it plays whether or not you like it or not. It uses the feedback to fine-tune the songs it chooses next. Pretty interesting project. The sound quality of the songs is great. You can create multiple stations each with their own set of inputs (artists, songs, and ratings on which to base the playlist) and you can email those stations to friends so they can listen to what you've created.

Pandora reminds me of Yahoo's LAUNCHcast, another music streaming application that also lets you rate the music. LAUNCHcast, though, chooses music based on the ratings of other LAUNCHcast listeners instead of on the music's physical qualities. It is similar to the way recommends books and music to you. This approach is a little more interesting to me because it can be full of pleasant surprises. For example, if there are many people out there that like John Coltrane and also like Tribe Called Quest, LAUNCHcast might play Tribe Called Quest for me if I rate John Coltrane highly even though the two artists' music don't have a lot in common physically. There just may be some unexplainable reason that people who like Coltrane also like Tribe. Pandora would never be able to make that association. Instead it would keep playing saxophone-centric jazz from the 60's.

The major drawback for LAUNCHcast is that it only works on Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers. This means I can't use my favorite Firefox browser and, even worse, I can't listen to it on Linux, which I use at work. Pandora, on the other hand, is a Flash application so it works in Firefox and on Linux!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Now Collecting Statistics

I have been posting to this blog now for several months and I've assumed that it's only being read by a few friends and family members. After all, my blog posts are not about any particular subject, so this blog isn't likely to attract the attention of strangers or float to the top of a Google search.

Just to satisfy my curiosity though, I signed up for eXTReMe Tracking which lets me gather some basic statistics about the visitors to this blog. For example, it shows me what web sites referred someone, what search engine queries resulted in someone finding the blog, and also some rough geographical and technical information like what countries visitors are from and which browsers and operating systems they use. All I had to do was put a little JavaScript snippet in my blog side bar that results in an image which you can see to the right of this post - it is a small square with a globe in it. If you click on the globe, you, too can see my stats. They are public.

Now I'll sit back and see if I'm any more popular than I expect (and deserve) to be...

Oh, by the way, if you know of any better free web stats trackers, please comment and let me know about them.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Urban Container Gardens

If you have an old kiddie wading pool or car tire laying around, consider using it to start a garden. This article, Urban Agriculture: A Guide to Container Gardens, tells you how to do it.

I heard that the city of Santa Monica is considering devoting part of the top level of some parking garages into urban gardens. This Cycle Santa Monica blog post has more details.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

$40/month less on DSL

For the last 10 years, I've had DSL provided by MMInternet, a small DSL service provider from Long Beach. They gave me one static IP address for $56/month. When I first started with them, %56/month was about the going rate if you wanted to have a static IP. I wanted a static IP because I thought that one day I'd run web servers from my home - something I never ended up doing.

Over the past 10 years, the price of DSL has been dropping, but MMInternet never lowered my rate. I even asked them once to lower it, and they said they wouldn't, claiming that their excellent customer service made them worth the money. Being kind of lazy and wanting to avoid a service delay, I stayed with MMInternet all this time.

When I saw some recent advertising by Verizon that they were offering DSL for only $14.95/month, I decided that I couldn't hold out any longer. I couldn't justify paying $40/month more for almost the same thing. Granted, this was for a dynamic, not static, IP address, but still, since I'm not running any servers, I don't really need a static IP. So I cancelled my MMInternet subscription and ordered Verizon about a month ago.

The switchover has been quite a hassle. Verizon first game me a start date and then left me a voice mail saying that there was a problem and I needed to call them. When I called, they told me that the DSL speed I specified in my order was not available in my area, and I had to consent to a lower speed. I agreed and they told me to hold. Then the call got cut off. When I called back, I was transferred from department to department, and I had to explain why I was calling to every person I talked to. Finally I got to the right person, gave my consent again, and thought all was okay. Verizon ended up calling back again the next day saying that there was a problem with my account. I called them back again and again, I was transferred from department to department. Finally someone told me that the speed I ordered was okay and the previous people didn't know what they were talking about. The next day, I got another voice mail from Verizon saying there was a problem. This time when I called back, I decided to just cancel my order and sign up again, requesting the lower rate. So that's what I did.

This next round went smoother. They assigned me a new start date, sent me a starter pack with filters, cables, and a modem, and an email on the start date telling me to give the service a try. That night I gave it a try. No signal. I called tech support and they said they'd open a trouble ticket so a technician could run some tests. The next day I got a voice mail saying that I needed to call them. When I called, the tech support guy said that for some weird reason, they closed the ticket indicating that my line tested out okay. Still no signal. The guy opened another ticket requesting that someone come to my house this morning. No one showed up. I called back and they said someone could only come this afternoon, and I wasn't able to be home at that time. He said I'd need to reschedule for another weekday from 9 AM to 5 PM. I couldn't do that since I have to go to work each weekday. I told him to just keep running the tests. A few minutes later, another Verizon person called. He said that he thought that they sent me the wrong modem. Apparently it didn't match the equipment they have in my central office. I told him that I still had an old modem from my previous MMInternet service. He got excited and suggested that I try it. So I tried the other modem, and sure enough, I got a signal. Now why couldn't any of the other tech support people have known this? Each one of them asked me what modem was sent to me.

According to Verizon, I'm supposed to install some software on my computer that sets me up and establishes an account with them. I just ignored all that, plugged in my router, and got an IP address assigned to me. I don't plan on installing anything. So now I'm back online and happy to be saving the $40/month. The whole bad customer service thing from Verizon didn't piss me off too much. I think I expected it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Street Wars Comes to LA

I came across this interesting game called Street Wars which is coming to Los Angeles in March. It's a 3 week long watergun assasination tournament. It has taken place previously in New York City, Vancouver, Vienna, and San Francisco. If you play, you or your team receives an envelope containing information about your intended target. You get your target's name, contact info, home address, and work address. It is then your mission to track down and assasinate (shoot with a water gun) your target away from their home and work place. There are cash prizes.

Sounds interesting, but not for me. I wouldn't feel comfortable stalking someone, even if it was for the game. I also wouldn't want some stranger to get so much personal information about me. I guess it could be a fun way to meet people though.