Thursday, June 30, 2011

Samsung Galaxy S II: No Arrival in Sight

Samsung Galaxy S II, currently the holy grail of smartphones, has no release date in the United States. Thus far it has been released pretty much everywhere but here, in the U S of A. I want one; so does a multitude of other techies and non-techies alike out there. One simply has to glimpse into any smartphone forum to realize just how badly people want this device. Almost too badly, I should say.

To add insult to the injury, Engadget reported that the device is now slated to come out in Canada for the network providers Bell, Sask Tell (??) and Virgin Mobile. Is it slated to hit Bell on July 14th, with the other two providers offering the Samsung Galaxy S II the next after. Why oh why must this be so? Common business sense dictates that if there a demand -- which there clearly is-- then some company will create supply to meet that demand. In the case of the Samsung Galaxy S II, the device already has been built and so the only thing left is to find a carrier to offer it. Why won't U.S. carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint offer this thing of beauty? I am starting to suspect some conspiracy involving Apple, like Apple bribing the U.S. carriers to not offer the Samsung device.

Ranting aside, I give this device a maximum of one to one-and-a-half months to show itself in the U.S. before I abandon it for greener pastures. Nokia's first iteration of the Windows Phone 7 platform will soon be released, and I am sure other hardware manufacturers are scrambling to release competitors to the Samsung Galaxy S II. Viable alternatives on the horizon are the Nokia N9 and, heck, even the Nokia N8 looks appealing again.

I would like to politely ask that a U.S. carrier please step up and offer this Samsung device. If Virgin Mobile America decides to follow suit to its Canadian counterpart and offer this phone on their plans, I would drop my current carrier (AT&T) in a heartbeat.

Moving Apartments

The stress of the past couple of weeks was magnified by the fact that I could not find housing for July 1st move-in. For reasons better to recount at a later time, staying in my current apartment was not possible. I can for now that rooming with 3 others while sharing a single bathroom and a (very) thin wall is a less-than-desirable arrangement. I like to cut spending whenever possible, but sometimes you have to be reasonable with your cost-cutting. The aforementioned conditions are not reasonable.

So after much searching and cold-calling, my roommate and I finally signed the lease this morning for the new apartment. It is a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom "dig" located around a mile south of the Clarendon metro station. The complex itself could be better but, for the price, it is an awesome deal. We will be paying less than $1300 per month, all utilities included. I am just really glad that this ordeal is (almost) over -- we have to move our things later tonight and hopefully the process will proceed without a hiccup.

In the midst of this event, I wanted to share some thoughts and offer advice derived from my experiences. Some of the advice will be important to save time and money, while others are just personal quirks that perhaps some of you may identify with:
  • Craigslist is not always a reliable source of apartment hunting. I had really high hopes for the most part of this month that I could find somewhere ideal through Craigslist. My assumption that people would be moving out, especially in Arlington, and that I could take over whatever they were leaving behind. What I forgot was the number of scams and the erratic-ness of housing opportunity available through Craigslist. I have by now become pretty good about spotting scams, but it's annoying nonetheless. Days can go by without an opportunity showing up, which leads to the next point....
  • July 1st is (apparently) one of the busiest times in the Washington D.C. area. You would think all comings and goings (e.g. interns) would have happened in May and June, right? That does not appear to be the case. Housing is very tight for the month of July and pretty competitive. I know this as good opportunities are snatched up very quickly.
  • Have your social security card in your possession. I had to scramble to obtain a letter from the Social Security office in order to fulfill application requirements for the apartment. It's a pretty stupid rule as social security numbers are readily demonstrated by things like W-4 or W-2s, but the apartment managers were dogmatic.
  • Know what you want (be satisfied). This seems like a no-brainer, but when things get desperate, we tend to not think properly. I almost signed with another friend for a 2 bedroom apartment in Rosslyn, only to realize before we submitted our application (and thereby wasting money) that neither of us were extremely happy with the place. We each gave preference ratios and both of ours were 60:40, that is, 60% for and the rest against. I recommend having preference ratios of at least 80:20 before making a commitment.
  • Shooting for a weekend day to move. Sometimes you can't help it but move during the week. When you can though, try to schedule to move during the weekend. It allows for much greater flexibility and...
  • Arrange moving arrangements ahead of time. Notify your friends ahead of time, especially those who have pickup trucks to move big furniture pieces. This is especially true for holds of Zipcar membership -- I am learning this lesson the hard way.
Overall, the housing market in the Washington D.C. area is crazy. This is particularly true for renters like myself. Good deals are really hard to comeby. Just stick to the basics: know what you want, know if you truly like it, and know if it meets your needs.

The Ultimate "Bridge to Nowhere": China's Jiaozhou Bay Bridge

Today's been a relatively quiet day at work (thus far), which means I am able to do things like read news and blog about them. One of the items I came across is the announcement that the longest sea bridge in the world has become operational. The said bridge is the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, which connects the city of Qingdao to Huangdao District in southeast China. It spans about 26 miles (the length of a marathon) and took four years to complete.

The first that comes to mind is probably "cool!" or "wow, the Chinese can really build!". These exclamations are warranted by the immense size and scope of the project. The Jiaozhou Bay Bridge took four years to construct, employed around 10,000 construction personnel, and took about 450,000 tons of steel and 2.3 cubic meters of concrete (translated into 5,000 supporting pillars). The cost of the bridge is equally staggering -- at least in Chinese terms. At the time when the U.S. media is stirring anger at the new San Francisco bridge being built in China and then assembled in the U.S. in order to save $400 million, this bridge is estimated to have cost $1 billion to build. The estimated price of the new San Francisco Bay Bridge? $7.2 billion. Although both are enormous sums of money, one is a much greater waste than the other. Can you guess which one?

The answer will probably surprise you. I'd say the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge is a bigger waste of money than the new San Francisco Bay Bridge. While the numbers are significantly different, the former spans connects a sizable city, the latter connects a metropolis together. In addition, the San Francisco version represents the revision of an American landmark; the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge is built somewhere with much less renown. Sure, most Chinese people know Qingdao as a tourist attraction, but how many foreigners know of the place? Perhaps the bridge will bring greater renown to the city of Qingdao -- but I think the spending is mostly unwarranted.

If anything, it represents another fascination by the Chinese (spurred by the government) to break world records with their creation. There is nothing wrong with wanting to break records but, when public money is being spent, one must be reasonable and not waste. This is probably a huge waste of public money, money that could have been spent for much greater purposes like building parks and improving living standards in the region. Instead, it is spending on this colossal heap of steel and concrete that most residents will not be able to afford to travel upon (I assume tolls will be very high). A good comparison is the infamous "bridges to nowhere" that were built in remote regions like Alaska. These bridges hold very little value as an unreasonably low number of citizens have a use for it.

Well done, the city of Qingdao. You have just wasted $1 billion. Is is really worth it to "cut commute time in 1/2, from 40 minutes to 20 minutes"?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An Introduction to My Cuisine

After talking and talking about how this blog would incorporate some culinary topics (I even have a "Cuisine" page, for Pete's sake), the day has finally arrived. I will be posting on the food that I order or make. The follow is just an appetizer...

What you see above is one of my favorite things to make: fried rice. I made some earlier tonight actually, but forgot to photograph my progress until it was too late. My fried rice is much healthier than at restaurants because I use little oil and salt, lots of vegetables, and a good balance of protein. The above was a seafood attempt with carrots, lettuce (weird, I know), crab imitation, eggs, onions and rice (duh). It takes very little time to make fried rice, and you can use almost anything at hand. I will try to remember to document next time.

As a firm believer in the importance of a sizable breakfast, I like to prepare it when I have the chance. This is normally on weekends. What you see above is scrambled eggs, with blueberry waffles, fresh blueberries, and a glass of iced cranberry-apple juice. As you can see, I took this picture just as I was finishing (maybe I felt famished that morning...). The whole thing took about 5 minutes to prepare --waffles were frozen Eggo waffles-- and tasted good. A little high on the sugar perhaps.

So there you have it, a quick introduction to my culinary skills. They are not awesome (though I like to think so) but I can prepare a variety of different foods. Stay tuned for future posts on my cuisine -- which is very suitable for young professionals.

Google Introduces Google+

Noticed anything lately while using Google's ubiquitous search page? What, the navigation bar at the top is now black colored? Congratulations! You have just caught a glimpse of the upcoming Google+ service -- better know as Google's long-awaited challenge to Facebook.

Courtesy of an Engadget report, Google appears to have finally launched its challenger to the behemoth of a social network better known as Facebook. I bet Zucks is paying close attention to this development. As a user of various services provided by Google (e.g. Blogger, Gmail), I welcome this fresh attempt by the internet services giant at developing its own social network. I will even go as far as say I am cheering for Google to succeed. Why? At least Google+ will probably be integrated with other useful services -- as opposed to Facebook, which holds little value besides stalking friends or creating the facade of having actual friends. This is not to say that Facebook is worthless (because it isn't).

First of all, let me talk a bit about the name Google decided to name its social network. Google+? Really Google, is that the best you could come up with? It's better (read: more creative) than slapping an "i" to the conventional name of a product, but I expected better. I expected something cool along the lines of "Google Waves" or "Googles". "Google+" offers no allusion to what the service actually is, which would worry me if I was a member of the marketing team.

Yet (without having tried this new service), I think that Google will give Facebook a run for its money. Rumors are that Google+ will also attempt to challenge Skype through offering video-chat services. It's like Google is waging war on two fronts: on the social network front against Facebook, and on the internet communications front against Microsoft. Maybe it's picking too many fights at once? Well, I believe the answer is no. Google isn't just some weakling in the playground -- it's the biggest kid who has thus far been picking his nose and kicking around rocks. In other words, Google has not made a concrete push on these fronts yet. Instead, it has been busy consolidating its core businesses and building a diverse ecosystem. Now it's turning its attention on building a viable social networking platform.

My opinion is that Google will win in the long term against the two incumbents. The reason is simple: neither Facebook nor Microsoft offers the diversity of integrative products as Google does. Facebook has become a display advertising giant, but has not expanded into nothing other than maintaining its social network -- its "Apps" are entertaining and recent business promoting a-la-Groupon holds some potential though. Microsoft is in a better position than Facebook, but not by much. Its Hotmail service has largely been crowded out by Yahoo! and Gmail, Bing is forever the underdog to Google Search, and the bulk of its true content pathways are funneled to its Xbox business. In sum, the recipe to Google's victory is its ability to streamline the integration of its many services into a single, user-friendly ecosystem. If Google+ becomes a place where popular services like Gmail, Maps, Search, Docs, and Translate can be brought together, then it will be an absolute winner. In other words, Google+ has to become so good that users cannot afford to stay away from it.

In economic terms, what makes Facebook and Skype so successful right now are their market share. Both have reached what is known as "critical mass", when the number of users skyrockets and the business takes off. It takes years to build out to "critical mass" but, once reached, incumbents are very difficult to unseat. But they are not "unseatable" -- all it takes is a novel approach, or a better experience to lure away users. The nature of businesses such as social network and video communications are their dependency on popularity; the more people use them, the more potential users will opt in. But Google has this popularity already through its myriad of different services. The task at hand is to bring everything together.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Music Liners -- "Blessings" by Laura Story

Unless the station is out of range, my car radio is fixed on WGTS 91.9. I really like the station because, true to its motto, it is "family friendly" and streams contemporary Christian music all the time. As much as I like Hillsong United music, sometimes one needs a bit of variety and the WGTS provides that for me. When I want to listen to new music, the radio station is the best means of doing so. (I suppose Pandora would be good too, but I tend to prefer my own music collection when sitting at my desk.)

One of the songs I recently heard is "Blessings" by Laura Story. I think it is a remarkable song, because it speaks candidly about how we are toward God and what blessings could be. I'd say she attempts to debunk the false notion that difficulties in life are not the work of God. In my (humble) opinion, she does this very well. The song is even better by the fact that the only instrument used is a piano -- no drums, no guitar, just a piano and Story's soothing voice.

As the title of the song suggests, the subject of the song is on blessings and what they really entail. Laura Story delves into this topic by focusing on our typical behavior in relation to God: we tend to pray first for the safety for ourselves and our loved ones, "comfort for family", for "health" and for "prosperity". Not to say these prayers are wrong, but focusing too much on them displaces what should be the gospel of Jesus Christ -- that we are to love others and God, more than we love ourselves. It is with this premise that she introduces the woes that arise when hardships come our way. When we feel betrayed, lose our health and career, oftentimes our reaction is the feeling of being abandoned by God. But, as Story communicates in the story, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Have you ever gone through a difficult situation and realized afterward how beneficial it was? To the point of being thankful for the lessons you learned through the experience? Well, that is precisely what Laura Story is telling us through her song. That sometimes our greatest disappointments could be blessings given in disguise. Sometimes (or oftentimes) things do not work out the way we envisioned, but it doesn't mean that God has forsaken us. Not at all. Maybe there are better outcomes that requires us to grow, mature first. If everything always worked out the way we wanted, how would we know what grace and thanksgiving are?

There are a few lines from Story's song I really like:
"We cry in anger when we cannot feel you near, we doubt your goodness, we doubt your love..."
"What if your blessings come from raindrops, what if healing comes through tears"
"What if my greatest disappointments, or the achings of this life, is the revealing of greater things this world cannot satisfy"

When reading Story's lyrics, one immediately realizes that most of the verses are written in question form. This is for the effect -- as aforementioned-- to challenge readers about their preconceptions of what blessings are. The first verse quoted speaks of our typical reaction to hardships or difficulties. I know that personally, I behaved in this manner when disappointments came my way (e.g. turned down from jobs, Mandy). The feeling is very much akin to being abandoned, or wanting to throw up my arms in despair. Yet, in full agreement with the second verse, sometimes this is just how God operates -- of how His blessings work.

Yes, disappointments and failures are stinging and sometimes even be debilitating, but we should not regard them as the ultimate ends. Instead, they serve as the means to an end -- an end that is not revealed to us until much later. Story voices this in verse 3. This is similar to a biblical passage previously blogged about: that we are to "trust steadily, hope unswervingly, and love extravagantly". We must believe that God is the one in control and no one else. With this in mind, our attitude is to trust in His plan for our lives and hope for the very best. Because if God is not the one in control, then who is?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Personal Mantra and Dealing with Fears

So instead of catching up on blogging, I spent a good chunk of this afternoon reading the latest edition of Men's Health magazine. [For the record, I subscribe to only this and Atlantic magazine due to an online deal.] I remember coming across an article in which the author spoke about the importance of having a personal mantra -- funny thing is, I just spent quite a few minutes trying to find the article and unable to do so. In addition, I watched an excellent commencement speech given by cable talk show host Conan O'Brien to the graduating class of Dartmouth. Just want to take the time to expand on both topics.

First the personal mantra. You probably hear these a lot: many athletes profess to have a mantra they live by (e.g. NBA's Amare Stoudemire "Stand Tall and Talented"), as well as corporate mottos (e.g. Cisco's "Human Network"). The purpose of mantras is to sustain an individual's hopes and dreams; in other words, as an inner source of motivation, especially in difficult times. You may contend that a mantra is inherently different from a corporate motto, but I think we should view mottos as mantras because they serve the purpose of inspiring the company. We can similarly add the (cliched) Latin aphorisms -- since examples such as "Carpe Diem (Seize the Day!)" and "Succisa Virescit (What is cut down grows back stronger)" are used for the same intent.

In the article I came across, the author stated that his personal mantra is "This is is fantastic!" He uses this expression on any dark clouds that come into his daily life. The intention is not to fool oneself but, instead, to re-frame the situation from a negative into a positive. Instead of sulking or complaining about an issue, one constructs the issue into an exciting challenge to be tackled. For example, the author describes that when bad weather happens (e.g. rain, snow), he says "this is fantastic" and proceeds to enjoy the bad weather. The implied understanding is that most things are well outside our control and we should adapt accordingly.

I really like this idea of formulating a personal mantra, as an inner source of motivation/compass for most situations. Among the numerous issues I am dealing with right now (e.g. procrastination, finding housing, and even Mandy), I'd say procrastination tops the list as the most "self-destructive". The obvious remedy to procrastination is improving my work ethic -- stop wasting time and focus on tasks at hand. This includes the realm of "surfing" the internet without doing anything constructive. Yet at the same time, I think it is very important to recognize that there will be cases where work ethic is not the solution. Like the author of the article, one has to recognize these instances and be able to adapt as best as possible. Personally, being a Christian means always giving thanks to God for everything in my life.

With the above in mind, I'd set my personal mantra to be "Work Hard and Be Thankful". It's pretty straightforward, but I think it will be effective regardless. Some future revision may in the works though (I need something more creative/original).

Now on the topic of Conan O'Brien's commencement address to the graduating class of Dartmouth College, it was one of the best speeches I have watched. (Link to the speech and script here.) True to his character, Conan spent most of the speech roasting or satirizing Dartmouth --namely against its more famous counterparts in the Ivy League like Harvard and Princeton-- but offered some very good advice toward the end. The quality of his advice is compounded by the fact that he drew upon personal experiences about disappointment. Of course, his experience was parting ways last year with NBC's Tonight Show.

More specifically, Conan said that "there few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized". Just take a moment to reflect on this statement. Yes it is cliched, but also truthful to the core. Have there ever been times when you feared about an outcome, yet when that outcome was realized, it wasn't as bad as you thought? Afterward you may think it's kind of silly to have feared so much in the first place. In other words, our fears for certain things is magnified through the element of fear itself. The lesson to be learned is not to succumb to our fears and instead go for things. Oftentimes, it is better to have tried and failed than having not done so at all. Disappointment strings (for sure!) but we can learn valuable things from these short-lived episodes. Almost makes you want to have your worst fears realized, huh?

Lastly, Conan ended his speech by quoting himself at the end of his tenure with NBC. On his last show, he told the viewers to "Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen". I think in retrospect I am going to plagiarize a portion of this saying and incorporate it into my personal mantra. It now reads "Work hard, be thankful, and amazing things will happen"

Friday, June 24, 2011

Procrastination (Workplace and in Life)

It's been a weird week this week. I think it's due to a combination of stress in finding housing (still searching...), lack of work, and pensiveness about my social life. Stress about finding housing in particular has been weighing on me lately. Last weekend was amazing, so I suppose this week's weirdness returns things to equilibrium.

And I've also been procrastinating big time, both in the workplace and outside of work. As evidence of this behavior, I have not been posting very much this week. I know sometimes I blame on the lack of interesting things to blog about but, deep down, I know better. I have lists of subjects I would like to share with everyone -- often I'm just too lazy to sit down and write about them. This post will be to address this issue of procrastination.

Let's first not condemn procrastination as one of the cardinal sins. Yes it is a bad habit, but I can think of many worse ones (e.g. murder, stealing, adultery). It is arguably more debilitating when we recognize procrastination for what it is: because then we can feel a sense of doom to this habit. Furthermore, it is simply not realistic to always be doing things and trying to fill our lives with tasks big and small. It's actually worse because then we would not have time to reflect on our experiences. Sometimes it is good to just take a break from things, lie down on the green grass outside (or just on your bed), and...relax. Contrary to Lenovo's most recent ad, we are not "do machines". We are not machines.

The above being said, procrastination can be a major issue that leads to negative consequences. The root of procrastination is, quite simply, delaying the execution of tasks. It can range from anything like taking out the garbage to buying a new car. My personal experience this week with procrastination has been with work more, and life less (though it is harder to gauge life).

Work-wise, I have been procrastinating badly this past couple of weeks with a project I am assigned to. The general gist of the project is that I have to test changes to our business system in order to see if changes have been correctly implemented. My procrastination on this project stems from two main sources: (1) this project is a hand-me-down from someone else, which means I do not understand as thoroughly, and (2) I have barely done testing at all thus far in my work assignments. The latter problem in particular made me uneasy, as it meant I had to ask for assistance from other co-workers. Perhaps out of a misplaced sense of pride, but I did not want to ask for help nor really understand the project as it was originally not my own. The result was most of the week spent consciously avoiding doing the work, before scrambling late Thursday and all of Friday. This is translated into the graph below (please excuse the language)...

This is terrible. Period. I finished the project now, but had this been a major project, I could have been in some trouble. One of the things I've come to understand better is that, unlike school, there is no place for any quality of work besides "A" level. You can turn in "C" level work, but you will either be asked to do it again, or be fired. More concisely, there is no place for anything below "A" quality work in the professional world. It's about taking things seriously, which includes asking for help if necessary. There is no shame in asking for help -- and it is a heck lot faster than trying to Google search the answers yourself.

On the personal level, procrastination has mainly been in the realm of working on this blog and learning to play guitar (among other personal projects). As a reader, you can readily see the results of procrastination: I have posted very little over the past week and absolutely fallen short of my self-created weekly targets for this blog. Learning to play the guitar has involved picking up the guitar, strumming it wildly for 20 minutes, before putting it down and forgetting about it. The culprit of these behaviors has been a combination of surfing the internet aimlessly too much (e.g. watching youtube videos) and perhaps the stress of finding housing. For the latter, I need to move out of my current place by next Thursday (less than 5 days away). Thankfully something turned up as of now.

To combat procrastination, I think it will be very important to set definite goals for oneself, create a personal mantra, and striving to hit those goals. It takes much diligence an self-control, especially refraining from things like surfing the internet aimlessly.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Triumph of New-Age Medicine - Magazine - The Atlantic

The Triumph of New-Age Medicine - Magazine - The Atlantic: ", the fourth-biggest payer. Yet while France was ranked No. 1 in health-care effectiveness and other major measures, the United States ranked 37th, near the bottom of all industrialized countries."

[This was an excellent article I recently read on The Atlantic. When I have the time, I will be sharing my thoughts on its topic of discussion: modern-day medicine.]

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda 2 was the second weekend in a row where I saw a newly released movie. In this case, it was Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda 2. (Astute readers may remember that the weekend before was X-Men: First Class.) The circumstances that led to me watching Kung Fu Panda 2 is similar to what led to watching the X-Men movie -- call it "family obligation".

This past weekend was Father's Day and my plan was to cook dinner for the family before heading back to Washington D.C. However, my dad somehow conjured an idea he almost never has: proposing we go out to see a new movie. Last time we saw a movie together was back when National Treasure 2 came out (what, like 3 years ago?). As you may guessed, the proposed movie was Kung Fu Panda 2 and, given it was Father's Day, I did not protest. I did not even protest when the 3D showing was selected (since I would be footing the bill). But I am glad that, out of all the movies currently out, we picked this one to see. Kung Fu Panda 2 was (very unexpectedly) a terrific Father's Day movie.

Having never seen the entirety of the first Kung Fu Panda movie, I expected this one to fall short of the immense expectations of being the second of a Dreamworks franchise. All I know is that the first movie was very popular and a massive box-office hit. Overall, my impression of Dreamworks films is that they are a "poor man's" version of Pixar films (e.g. Finding Nemo vs Shark Tale, A Bug's Life vs Entz). Therefore I went into the theater with the bar set low for Kung Fu Panda 2 -- especially as we saw this movie in 3D.

But I was pleasantly surprised. For one, the length of the movie was short yet captivating throughout. The run time is an hour and a half, but it felt much longer. This speaks volumes to the quality of the animation and the story development of Kung Fu Panda 2 -- one of the worst experiences is having to sit through a 3 hour movie that feel longer (case in point: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Although the visuals were good, the movie did not rely on its special effects to engage the audience. Instead (and rightfully so), it was the plot and the characters.

For those familiar with the franchise, Kung Fu Panda is the story about the rise of a panda bear named "Po" who becomes a martial arts master. Po is clumsy, often unintelligent, but possesses tremendous stamina, courage, and perseverance. The first movie revolved around the journey of Po from being a worker in his father's restaurant to becoming a "Dragon Warrior". In this sequel, we are introduced to Po's background and the other parts of the fictionalized country of China. The film directors were clearly betting on the awesomeness of Po's character to draw audiences -- a bet that seems to be paying off at the box office. The story for this movie centers around Po's origins and addresses the reason for why Po's father is a crane and not...another panda. There is another evil villain (spoiler: an evil peacock) but the story doesn't revolve around defeating this evil. Instead, the villain is used to explain Po's origins.

Overall, Kung Fu Panda 2 is an excellent family movie. It is funny, witty, and also inspiring. The inspiration part derives from the fact that a giant panda could overcome difficulties and rise to become a kung fu master. I thought the voice casting was also a highlight of the movie (and the franchise as a whole): Jack Black excels as the voice of Po, Dustin Hoffman as Shifu, Jackie Chan as the monkey, and Angelina Jolie as the tigress. I have a nagging feeling there will be another sequel coming up that, as Dreamworks' track record with Shrek suggests, will not be as good. But this one is worth watching!

Nokia's N9 Debuts!

[Mia culpa for not posting anything for the past few days. It's been a ridiculous weekend, plus work has been busy. I hope to make it up to you readers...starting now.]

Courtesy of Engadget reports, I found out this morning that Nokia has taken the wraps off its upcoming N9 flagship smartphone. The significance of this revelation is that the N9 is Nokia's first phone running on the MeeGo operating system. It is interesting, to say the least, that Nokia has chose to introduce this phone --in spite of explicitly casting its full support behind Microsoft's Windows Phone7 OS.

Return readers to this blog probably already know that I am a big fan of Nokia products (namely phones). As a proud owner of a Nokia E71x, a device that has not failed me once over the past couple of years, I am definitely looking first for any potential replacements. The company is renowned for the quality, versatility, and long battery-life of its products. I can absolutely vouch for Nokia. So what so special about this device?

For starters, the Nokia N9 packs a 3.9-inch "Clear Black" AMOLED, Gorilla-Glass-protected screen, 1 GB of RAM, and an OMAP3630 (Texas Instruments) 1Ghz processor, along with quad-band capability, GPS, Bluetooth 2.1, and a 8 megapixel camera. All these features are in line with the best smartphone offerings out there -- perhaps with the exception of the processor, which is only single core. The camera resolution is also a slight disappointment given the Nokia N8 carried a 12-megapixel sensor, but the N9's supposedly carries wider-than-usual lens. What truly sets the N9 apart is its quad-band capability and, not surprisingly, the MeeGo OS. Quad-band capability is a great feature for those who travel around the world a lot.

Yet the point of discussion is the MeeGo OS. Based on the demonstration on Engadget's hands-on videos, I like the software but more thrilled about the hardware. MeeGo looks like a more mature version of Apple's iOS operating system, thanks to its multi-tasking capabilities. One negative is the number of apps I see displayed on the main menu -- why so many? Call me "old school" but I much prefer the native embedding of useful applications like music player into the operating system itself, rather than having to install it. This is the same reason I still have my E71x: Symbian may be outdated but it is reliable and gets the job done. I have to admit, however, that I was "wow-ed" by the demonstration of the N9's ability to connect via Bluetooth (by touch) into compatible devices.

Overall, this blog post is just to highlight a new development in the tech sector. (Or at least significant in my opinion.) I think Nokia's CEO, Stephen Elop, made the right call into switching to Windows Phone 7 for future Nokia devices. Inasmuch as MeeGo is usable, it cannot compete against the likes of iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7 on the software development front. In other words, MeeGo looks very much like a product still under development -- not ready for prime time. And Nokia can ill-afford to wait until the platform matures. As Tony Starks says so well, "sometimes you have to run before you can walk".

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tech Review: Canon PowerShot SD1300 IS

As promised in a previous post, I am here to review my new camera: the Canon PowerShot SD 1300 IS. Let me preface this review by noting that, despite the sometimes torrid thoughts I share on tech products, my experience with digital cameras is very limited. I never really owned my own camera -- did not know about photography when I was younger, did not have the urge to take photographs in high school and college, and now I am too busy to take it up as a hobby. This admission being made, I will attempt to construct as thorough and unbiased a review as possible...

First of all, let's get the specs out of the way. The Canon PowerShot SD 1300 IS features a 12.1 megapixel sensor, 28 mm wide-angle lens, 4x optical zoom, and a 2.7 inch LCD screen. Its other noted features are the capable low light mode and a "Smart AUTO mode [that] intelligently selects from 18 settings". All in all, it is a powerful point-and-shoot camera -- perhaps one of the best in its class. At least the specifications on paper are quite impressive.

What do you do get in the box? The contents are pretty standard in my opinion: the camera (duh!), a wrist strap, battery charger (yes the Canon PowerShot SD1300 IS uses rechargeable batteries), the battery itself, AV cables, instructions manual, and installation software. Admittedly the only items I've touched are the manual, the camera, and the wrist strap.

One of the first things you notice when holding the Canon SD1300 is just how small and compact it is. The camera is about the width of a first generation iPad (assuming you have one of those to compare to) or double the thickness of my Nokia e71x smartphone; weight-wise, it is listed at 5 ounces but feels much less. I think the Canon SD1300 is skin to one of those bigger smartphones -- except of course, it can only take photographs or video. The build quality is also impressive: full-body aluminium build makes the camera feel very solid on hand.

Appearance aside, I like what I've seen thus far from the Canon SD 1300's performance. The camera starts incredibly fast, taking roughly 5 secs from the press of the power button until it is ready to take pictures. This will come in handy for those special yet short-lived moments (hasn't happened here yet). The interface is easy to use. For newbies like myself, the "Smart AUTO" mode is very helpful to automatically select the best mode for certain situations. I have not tested out the entire breadth of the image quality, but so far so good. The images come out sharp and colors very natural. I have only taken pictures of food (self-made fried chicken rice, which I will blog about soon) and a couple of pictures at a recent Washington Nationals baseball game. The photographs came out well.

When I look at tech gadgets, one of the most important things to me is the battery life of the device and versatility (storage-wise). The Canon PowerShot SD 1300 IS takes the standard-sized SD card. I am happy to declare that I have yet to charge the camera -- although I've only taken about 5 pictures thus far. Based on what I have read, a single charge should yield at least 300 photographs; some owners have stated they've taken around 400. In other words, the battery life is solid. One concern I do have is the fact the battery is rechargeable, which means you have to monitor your usage when recharging stations are not readily available. This would apply to long road trips or photograph-intensive events (e.g. a wedding).

In sum, I really like the Canon PowerShot SD1300 IS thus far. It is compact, battery-efficient, and gets the job done. I would recommend it to anyone in the market for a basic point-and-shoot camera. Otherwise new camera technologies like the micro-thirds (?) could be attractive alternatives. Cameras like the Sony NX-3 are said to pack the power of a SDLR in the shape of a point-and-shoot.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

iTunes Not a "Cash Cow" for Apple

This is certainly news to me. As reported by CNET, Apple is estimated to spend approximately $1.3 billion per year (that's $113 million per month) to run its iTunes and App Store portals. While that is a staggering operating expense, I always thought Apple makes many times that in revenues back. Looks like this may not be the case.

The cost estimation of $1.3 billion was computed by the market research firm Asymco, using the numbers provided at the most recent Worldwide Developers Conference, or WDC (quick recap here). Asymco concluded that given the price of songs and apps that Apple charges, the company runs both services at just "slightly above the breakeven point". This analysis is collaborated by the opinion of other analysts, who have stated in the past that the App Store has never been a source of huge profits for Apple. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster estimated a year ago that the App Store only nets profits of $189 million since launch for Apple.

Now, how can this be? How could the two most popular music and application portals not contribute significantly to Apple's bottom line? I for one thought that their overwhelming usage alone (this is a no-brainer, as much as I like Amazon's stores, Apple's is just more popular) would translate into colossal profits. In wake of this news, it seems like the operating expenses are much higher than before. After all, the success of both services is contingent on Apple's ability to streamline payment processes, data transfers, and preparing capacity. All these can be expensive -- unlike Microsoft's cash cow "Office" or "Windows, or Google's ubiquitous search engine, Apple's iTunes and App Store require constant hands-on management. (Google probably has significant expenses to its search engine, but this is more than offset by advertising revenue.)

What is interesting about this news is that it points Apple's business model: maximize hardware revenue. While Apple's software may be adored by millions, new releases like OSX Lion and iOS5 are not for the express purpose of being innovative. Instead, they are to attract customers to its hardware like MacBooks and iPhones -- which (obviously) run exclusively on Apple's own hardware. The main point of software including App Store and iTunes is to differentiate Apple from the competition. This makes sense given the oft-ridiculous markup of Apple's various gadgets: because this is how the company makes the bulk of its profits. In economic speak, the profit margin is much much higher in hardware than in software. No wonder iTunes runs so sluggishly on my ThinkPad!

Music Liners -- "If I Let You Go" by Westlife

For all those hopeless romantics (or hopeful romantics) out there, this is perhaps one of the most fitting songs to describe your state of mind. I know so because it was one of my favorites. It is also the perfect song to capture the "limerence" condition blogged about before.

Westlife is an Irish boyband formed in the late 1990s, when boybands (e.g. N-Sync, Backstreet Boys), girlbands (e.g. Spice Girls, Atomic Kitten) and mixed gender bands (e.g. S-Club 7, Hear'Say, Steps) were all the rage. Although I lived in a remote corner of Europe at the time, it was difficult not to get caught up in the pop culture. I remember one of my friends back then, a somewhat feminine guy, being addicted to the Spice Girls. As revealed previously, I remain very much a fan of pop music and of various pop artists. But this appears to be a fading fad in a music industry increasingly dominated by modern rock, techno, and rap.

But back to the subject, Westlife consists of four guys (originally five) who have continued to flourish in their music performance. The band represents an outlier because they remain successful and together -- when all the aforementioned bands have long parted ways. They are recognized for being of the best selling music acts over the past decade, and having fourteen of their singles hitting the numero uno spot at the UK music chart. But I digress a bit: this isn't a post to describe the band, but to discuss of their songs. You can read to your heart's content on the band here (link to Wikipedia).

After hearing the song, I think you'd be inclined to agree with first paragraph of this blog post. Is the song "cheesy"? Absolutely yes! Is it "vaguely pathetic"? I would also admit that it is indeed. However, neither cheesiness nor pathetic-ness can take away the straightforward message of the song: you don't want to let go that special someone you found.

The song, as its title suggests, is about someone unwilling to let go of their special other; this person is seemingly stuck in a limbo state of being unable to move on, yet at the same time, unable to letting go too. In other words, the narrator is madly in love with this other person but is kept from professing his affections -- mainly triggered by the fear of losing this other person. It's incredibly effusive of a song, but the truthfulness of the message is difficult to ignore. I think for those who have loved and lost, the lyrics reflect on our experiences very well. Even more for those who have loved but were unable to express their love.

Although the entire lyrics of the song are very to the point, I will single a couple of verses for discussion:

"There's no one like you, to speak to my heart, it's such a shame we're worlds apart"
"If I let you go, I would never know, what my life would be, holding you close to me"

Verse 1 is a bit depressing, as it comes in the second part of the song, when the narrator has seemingly come to terms of his predicament (read: limbo state). It's a bittersweet moment, when you realize just how impossible the hope and dream you've nourished isn't what you thought it would be. Perhaps you realize that despite physical proximity, you and your interest are actually "worlds apart". What do you do then? Do you deal with and decide it may be time move on?

Verse 2 listed is the first line of the song's chorus. The chorus brings the listener back to the idea of becoming unwilling to let go, because in doing so one would never know the other future. This verse captivates our attention because it addresses our fear of regret -- of lost opportunities that could have radically shaped our lives. Letting go of your interest means you'd miss out on the warmth of possibly "holding [this other person] close to [you]". One can never underestimate the value we assign to this type of warmth.

In all, I like the song because it is straightforward and simply an emotional song. I used to listen to it more, whenever I thought about Mandy. Nowadays, I am trying not to listen...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Arrival of AMD's Llano Fusion Chips

As a technology enthusiast (and an AMD shareholder), I was pleasantly surprised to come across news that the long-delayed AMD Llano series of Fusion chips have arrived. Or least they have begun shipments. This is a very positive development for consumers and shareholders alike, as the arrival of Llano solidifies the reemergence of AMD as a competitor to Intel.

So what's the big deal with the Llano? The Llano series of chips are the next step in AMD's expansion plans for the Fusion line of APUs (accelerated processing unit, which integrates the CPU and GPU together). Furthermore, these chips will be manufactured on a 32nm production technology -- that AMD's competitor, Intel, has been using for a year now. Reducing the chip size from previous 45nm production processes enables reduced costs, yet at the same time increasing performance and energy efficiency. While we have already seen the arrival of the Brazos/Zacate chips in the Fusion series, the Llano is a major breakthrough as it is designed to compete directly against Intel's i3 and i5 series. AMD has not been competitive in the mainstream mobile market segment (e.g. mainstream laptops) for quite some time now, and the Llano series have the potential to reverse the company's fortunes.

The Llano is formally branded as the Vision A-Series APU, first to be offered in three tiers: A4, A6, and A8. Each higher designation indicates an increase of graphics power, or number of cores over the previous one. The chart below (courtesy of should help to clarify matters:

Based on the benchmarks I have seen, the general consensus is that the Llano is an awesome piece of mobile silicon. Performance-wise, Llano chips generally triple the performance of the current Brazos line of Fusion-branded chips. The top-of-the-line Llano looks to be the A8, a quad-core beast with 400 Radeon cores. Although the benchmarks indicate the battery life to fall short of AMD claims "all day battery life" of 8+ hours per day, it is nonetheless impressive to say the least. Both AnandTech and Tomshardware run detailed tests on the Llano and results show Intel's SandyBridge line of chips retaining the speed crown.

But the story is different on the battery life front and video graphics: Llano at very least matches the battery life of SandyBridge series, and dominates in graphic-intensive tasks. This means that while it may not always topple comparable products offered by Intel in sheer processor power, the Llano is very competitive in battery life and graphical prowess. The latter we already knew --Intel's Achilles heel has always been video graphics-- but the competitiveness in battery life comes as a pleasant surprise. I currently manage about 4 hours of battery life on my Intel i5-equipped Lenovo Thinkpad. Just think of what you (or I) can do with double the battery life!

Whereas the first set of Fusion chips (codename Brazos) to hit the market primarily targeted the netbook market, these Llano chips solely target the mainstream (read: bigger). (AMD is also preparing the "Desna" series for the sub-Brazos market tier.) I am expecting Llano to be a hit, not a runaway hit like AMD's previous X2 processors, but a hit nonetheless. Given the current state of the economy, AMD's ability to better price their products will be a key selling-point to customers. The reality is that outside of geeks and gadget lovers, the average customer will chose the cheaper good when the performance is comparable -- or at least if they are told it is comparable.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

For the past few weeks (ever since classes ended), I have been reading The Screwtape Letters by the renowned Christian author C.S. Lewis. It's taken a while namely because I found it difficult to reading the book nonstop for a few hours of the time -- a matter made no easier due to its format. Admittedly I have yet to finish the book; I have about 1/5 of it left to read which, for better or for worse, I intend to leave unread. That being said, I believe such a revelation will have no impact on the direction (nor sentiment) of this book review.

The Screwtape Letters is C.S. Lewis' more famous works, often spoken in the same breadth as Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia series. Open the book and you can immediately understand why. The Screwtape Letters (henceforth shortened to "Letters" only) is, as its title suggests, a long series of letters written from the perspective of an elder devil to a young devil. The letters primarily serve to instruct the youngling how to best tempt humanity into committing sins and eventually entrapping them in Hell. (Their relationship is not unlike that of a Jedi and a Padawan...) From the subject of the alone, Letters makes a worthwhile reading due to the uniqueness of the perspective written from. Add to this C.S. Lewis' mastery of the English language, and you'd think the book would be a home run.

Well, is it a home run? According to the opinion of this (humble) blogger, Letters is...sorta. I was certainly captivated in the first few chapters, as one seldom has an opportunity to read theology from the opposite perspective (given that Lewis is the author).

The elder devil is named "Screwtape", while his experienced youngling is named "Wormwood". It is apparent from the first letter alone that Wormwood has much to learn about tempting human beings -- and that Screwtape, as condescending and vengeful as he appears to be, is a knowledgeable mentor. The focus of their communications is an unnamed "Patient" of Wormwood's, who is living through the Second World War. They also discuss a variety of theology-rich topics ranging from the grace of God to the idea of the original sin. Overall, the theology aspect of the various letters written seems to the point: Wormwood's energy is spent on undermining the faith of his Patient while promoting pursuit of sinful desires as much as possible.

Letters is, in of itself, a very informative account of our sinful desires -- how we are tempted to commit sin, or to run away from God. I think Lewis' purpose of writing from the perspective of the devil is to result in an awareness in the reader that will lead to change. In other words, when we know what can/will hurt us, we will take precautions to avoid the pain-inducing things. This, I believe is what makes Letters a worthwhile read. Two passages below evidence of how Lewis is teaching through exposing our prone to sins:

“Sooner or later, however, the real nature of his new friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient’s intelligence. If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realize the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer would not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a ‘deeper’, ‘spiritual’ world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea – the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction” (52).

“You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one –the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (61).

But that being said, the theology contained in the book is clearly on the introductory level. Lewis does not go into much detail in explaining specific theological constructs -- a matter masked by his ability to narrate effectively. I'd say it is a beginner book if the main purpose of the reader is to expand his/her theological knowledge. In addition, Letters was written more than half a century ago, which means there are phrases that are antiquated.

Blog Status Update

Astute readers of this blog may have realized now that I have not been diligent in certain things I mentioned in the last blog update. The main grievance has been the lack of a special weekly essay on a select topic. Let me assure you that I plan to rectify this matter very soon. At the moment, it's a matter of picking out the best topic to write about. Sometimes the hardest part about writing to get started.

One positive announcement is the purchase of a digital camera. This means now I can actually post original photographs (namely cooking?), instead of borrowing from other websites. The said camera is shown below: a Canon PowerShot SD1300 IS. It is actually a "gift" from my dad, who has frequently lamented at my lack of a digital camera. All I know right now that it is small, feels good in the hand, and boasts a 12.1 megapixel-capable lens. Maybe I will post a review of the camera in the coming weeks.

(Image links to listing if you are interested...)

Aside from the camera announcement, I have noticed a slight increase in readership to roughly 50 views a day (from 5-10 before). This is very encouraging news! I can now safely put my self-satirizing insinuations of "imagery readers" to rest. And rest assured folks, Blogger doesn't track you or anything of the sort -- all I see are the number of views per day (which I suspect includes my own also).

Lastly, I am still working on possibly migrating this blog to its own website. I already purchased the domain name but the issue is finding the time or an expert who can help migrate all the data. Cross yours fingers...

Thoughts on the PlayStation Vita

Due to the lull in exciting technology news lately, I decided to revisit a gadget that first appeared during this year's E3 Expo: the PlayStation Vita. Originally the intention was to post thoughts on both the PS Vita and the newly-announced Nintendo U. I guess we'll save the Nintendo U for the next lull in interesting news.

For all those who have missed the news, Sony announced the next generation of its portable gaming device (formerly codename "NGP"). The device packs a 5-inch OLED (organic light emitting diode) screen, two analog sticks along with the standard PlayStation D-pad, dual cameras, and state-of-the-art sensors like proximity and accelerometer. It also comes uniquely with a touchpad in the back of the device. But arguably the biggest surprise was the price: the PlayStation Vita will be offered at $249 retail for the Wi-Fi version, and $50 more (at $299) for the 3G version. This makes it directly competitive with the Nintendo 3DS.

At first glance, the PlayStation Vita seems to be destined for market success. It is competitively priced against the rival Nintendo 3DS, but packs much more features. Sony seems to have finally created a device that can dominate Nintendo's growing iterations of the original GameBoy -- a process it embarked on beginning in 2005, with the release of the PlayStation Portable. The price of $249 definitely makes the Vita very attractive for potential buyers. Commenters and self-proclaimed market experts alike have proclaimed the demise of the Nintendo 3DS thanks to the Vita.

But I would be more cautious in jumping to any conclusions so early. For one, recent history indicates that we should never count out Nintendo from the video gaming market -- even when they seemingly offer a mediocre product. For example, I remember both the Wii and the DS being mocked when announced: it was obvious the Xbox 360, PS3 and the PSP all offered superior hardware. Yet superior hardware alone is not enough (just ask the creators of the first Xbox). We all know the Wii and the DS have dominated sales charts until more recently. As underpowered and battery-sapping as the Nintendo 3DS is, I need to see some sales figures before announcing the Vita's victory.

I also think tech enthusiasts are also forgetting a critical transformation that has swept through the mobile video gaming market. Whereas the PSP and DS competed directly against each other, their successors must now compete against cell phones and tablets alike. And competition sure looks fierce! Both cell phones and tablets alike are becoming exponentially more powerful (e.g. upcoming quad-core tablets and the Samsung Galaxy S II phone), in terms of both speed and graphical prowess. Therefore, I think the PlayStation Vita will be competing more with these devices than with, say, the Nintendo 3DS.

More specifically, Sony has to convince potential customers that the PlayStation Vita cannot be replaced by the versatility of a new dual-core cell phone. Or by the bigger screen size of a tablet. This is becoming more and more difficult due to the myriad of game developers flocking to develop for mobile operating systems like the OSX and Android. One way for Sony to win is to release appealing games (like the announced Uncharted: Golden Abyss), which has been a bread-and-butter strategy of Nintendo's. But Sony's gaming franchises are arguably much less cemented than Nintendo's Mario, Zelda, Star Fox, and many more. On the bright side, as Halo's impact on the sales of Xbox evidence, it sometimes just takes one game to change the fortunes for a device.

In sum, I am excited to see what the PlayStation Vita has to offer -- and how it sells against the competition. It certainly has ingredients for success.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men First Class

After eagerly anticipating the new X-Men movie from Marvel Entertainment for months now, I finally saw it yesterday morning. I was pretty impressed overall. (My experience could be slightly tinged with bias, as I took my brother along and had a great time just bonding with him.)

I didn't grow up a Marvel comics fanatic, but have always enjoyed reading and watching the X-Men series. The whole idea of a new species of humanity arising, with special powers like telepathy and element manipulation, is just fantastic and...believable. Haven't each one of us at some point wished we had superpowers? The X-Men series allows us to visualize these fantasies -- I know I always wanted Ice Man's abilities to freeze anything and transform into an ice crystal. With this in mind, I liked all the post-2000 X-Men movies filmed. This is especially true for the first 2 (X-Men, and X2: X-Men United) because they were a good balance of character development/demonstration, and action. X3: Last Stand was marred by the fact that (spoiler alert!) Professional X was killed within the first 10 minutes of the film; the creation of Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a tad over-the-top.

Going back to the movie in review, I was eager to see the younger versions of Professor X and Magneto. And the movie delivered in this aspect. The directors did a very good job, in my opinion, to stay true to the comic iterations in introducing these two main characters in the series. Some significant changes were made obviously to segment the story into a movie -- and potentially a new trilogy. For instance, the villain of the movie is (spoiler alert!) not Magneto; instead, it is another mutant named Sebastian Shaw. Shaw exists in the Marvel story but is not depicted as the evil that brings Professor X and Magneto together for the first time, nor the predecessor to Magneto in ideology.

The number of characters introduced in the film was both a good and a bad. The good was that the movie directors dedicated a minute or two to focusing on the special powers of each character, as well as their origins. It was also a pleasant surprise to see some of the characters introduced: I would not have expected Havok, Bashee, and least of all Darwin to be introduced in this film. I am partly glad to see the new film focus on characters either not revealed, or sparingly shown, in the previous trilogy plus one. That being said, the bad is that the new characters are too many -- and sometimes very unimpressive. I particularly disliked the appearance of the cyclone-generating mutant and the hooker-turned-x-men-turned-brotherhood-of-mutants lady. Just the ability to fly and acid-sprouting? Reminds me of Reptile from the Mortal Kombat series. I was appalled by the death of Darwin by early in the movie series, since he possessed a very interesting mutant power. Why couldn't have (spoiler alert!) Havok have been killed instead?

All of the action scenes were generally very good. I liked the individuals casted for the roles of Professional X and Magneto, as they channeled their characters well. There were definitely "wow" moments in the film: pretty much whenever Magneto used his powers to attack others. This was especially true for his single-handed attack on the Soviet compound, the levitation of the nuclear submarine from the ocean depths, and the stopping of all missiles and subsequent attempt to "give them back" to the aggressors. In contrast to the first Iron Man movie, there was plenty of action scenes in this film.

Overall, I'd rank this film pretty high: 8/10. I would definitely recommend even if you remotely like the X-Men series, or seen the previous movies.

UPDATE (07/15/2011): I've been considering the character development of Magneto lately and the more I think about it, the more I like what the directors did to portray him in this film. Whereas in the previous renditions Magneto is portrayed as this evil villain bent on destroying homosapiens, we see in X-Men First Class the origins of this hatred. The truth is that we can empathize with his feelings -- living in the concentration camps, having your mother murdered before your very eyes, and being targeted by those whom you just helped. Maybe the genius behind the directing is to depict the dark side of humanity: hate, jealousy, and brutish-ness. Considering Magneto's perspective and past experiences, one should not be surprised at the end, when he seeks to destroy all the naval units using their own munitions. The climax is his retort to Professor Xavier's plead that "[the soldiers] are just following order" -- "I've been at the mercy of men following orders. Never again."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Budget Discussion -- Part 3 "Smart Housing"

It's been sometime since I last blogged on the topic of personal finance, namely how to budget your income accordingly. Following a general overview and on food consumption, I thought it would be helpful to review another significance drain on our wallets: housing. The term "housing" will be restricted to the rentals, since most young professionals are not financially there yet. This is a personal topic for me, as I've had troubles with this before, and the Washington D.C. housing market is one of the most expensive in the country.

When it comes to renting property, it is extremely important to analyze your own income first and foremost. I say this because we can be easily infatuated by desirable properties that are really outside of our ability. For example, we tend to forget about our needs when presented with luxuries such as roof-top swimming pool or a posh club room in some apartment complex. It's about not confusing "need" with "want": we need safety and quiet, but oftentimes want much more than that. Unfortunately, it is the "wants" that allow property owners to charge more -- and property seekers to pay more.

After the appropriate budget for housing is determined, it's time to start looking. Now things get interesting, because there is truly an amalgam of factors to keep in mind. All these factors can drastically impact the housing price paid:
  1. Roommates -- unless you absolutely must live alone, you should consider seeking roommates to try to find a place together. The obvious reason is that the difference between a 1 bedroom apartment and a 2 bedroom apartment is often marginal. For example, you can either pay $1000 for a 1 bedroom or split a $1300 2 bedroom apartment with someone else. The benefit? Saving $350 per month in rent. Having roommates is also beneficial for pooling resources, meeting new people, and enhancing safety. More to be discussed on this later.
  2. House or apartment -- this is a matter of personal preference. Although houses are generally associated with family life, they can be very cost-effective and yield other benefits. Houses are generally more flexible to add roommates, contain on-site laundry facilities, private parking on a driveway, less noise, and often come with a backyard for barbecue for the occasional shindig. That being said, apartments are normally better situated than houses, in addition to more community amenities (e.g. roof-top pool).
  3. Distance to work/school -- one should always consider this factor, since it can contain considerable unexpected costs. For example, living outside of walking distance means you'd have to drive or bike to work. Driving in particular could be troublesome if parking is difficult to find, or not free. You should also consider the commute time to get where you need to be. What's the point of living in a posh apartment if you are spending 2 hours each day commuting?
  4. Availability of public transportation -- going off the previous point, public transportation may not be used but should nonetheless be considered. Especially if something happens to your go-to mode of transportation. However, this comes with a downside: a positive correlation between some types of transportation available and price of housing. Case in point is metro rail.
  5. Utility costs -- in this day and age, one cannot do without internet service. Most properties do not include internet service in the rent, nor normal utilities like electricity and gas. This cost will depend on the energy efficiency of the property. A common cost for this category is $100 per month.
From a personal perspective, I feel that rent should be kept below 1/3 or even 1/4 of one's monthly income. Anything more feels excessive, to the point of being dangerous. Having a high rent can be dangerous in case your monthly income is reduced by whatever means (e.g. laid off). Housing is, generally speaking, one of the most inelastic/inflexible parts of your personal budget. One can chose to eat or drink less at will, but it is much harder to be "housed less". Just as one should never underestimate the importance of good sleep (read more here), one should not try to cut too many corners when it comes to housing.

Returning to the subject of roommates, the roommates you have can make or break a housing deal. It is that important. I remember that during freshman year in college, my roommate (randomly assigned) was an erratic sleeper due to his gaming addiction. As a result, I suffered countless sleep-deprived days because we shared a room together. But if you can find friends or a good random roommate --someone who will respect your privacy, need for quiet hours, and willing to clean and share certain items-- then that could make for a terrific living arrangement. Not only would you save on rent, but also have an on-hand person in case anything unexpected arises. From a personal perspective, I find that full-time students generally do not make good roommates --due to their erratic school hours and tendency to party on weekends (sometimes even on weeknights). But we ought not stereotype too much. Some students can be very good!

Economics of Five Guys' Success

I often joke with others that I am indifferent between a gourmet burger and a McDouble. Burgers are burgers, right? All it takes is a bun, a meat patty, a slice of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, some sauce and...voila! From that perspective, it is ridiculous to pay five times more for a burger at a gourmet place like Five Guys Burgers and Fries than a McDonald. But the kidding aside, I do recognize that there are significant differences between the two, and that one pays for a higher quality good in the gourmet burger.

What's surprised me is how successful some of these gourmet burger franchises have become, especially in the current (dismal) economy. One prime example is Five Guys which, as this article points out, has an almost "cult following" for its burgers. Business seems to be booming: customers are returning and bringing their friends, franchises are sprouting up all over the country, and sales revenue rocketing upward (all these 3 reasons are interdependent). Maybe we should start referring to Five Guys as the "Apple of the Burger Industry"?

The success of gourmet burger joints is clearly an reflection of people's preference for quality. This isn't necessarily a fight of quantity vs quality given news of McDonald's increasing sales, but does come as a surprise. Costs for gourmet (alternatively referred to as "built-to-order") burgers is significantly higher than a standard McDonald's burger -- joints like Five Guys boast of their patties never being frozen, using fresh vegetables, freshly baked buns, and quality pickles. It explains why the price of a gourmet burger would be much higher.

Yet, for the average consumer, gourmet burger joints are much rarer than the McDonald's and Burger Kings of the world. New franchises may be sprouting up, but likely in places where competition is implanted. In addition, the current recession certainly should indicate a movement away from gourmet burgers as they are considered luxury goods. This paradox can be explained by looking at two items: (1) the size of the market, and (2) the demographic of the customers.

For the first one, we must not assume that the market for burgers is a zero-sum game. That is, when there is a winner, there must be a loser. The CEO of Five Guys, Jerry Murrell, explains very well: he "loves" In-N-Out burgers. (In-N-Out is a competitor to Fiv Guys, similar to how Ford competes with Toyota in automobiles). Rather than In-N-Out taking away customers who would otherwise have gone to Five Guys, In-N-Out has instead expanded the market by attracting the curious and food junkies. Those food junkies, after tasting a few In-N-Outs, would likely sample other gourmet burger joints. The end result is more business for everybody. In economic terms, the market piece has become larger -- allowing everyone to reap greater profits, even in the case of direct competitors. Not to mention the welcoming of competition is a great attitude for a CEO to have.

The second explanation has already been touched on by the article. Frequent customers at these gourmet burger joints are often not young families, but baby boomers or the so-called Generation Y (aka young professionals like myself). This demographic not only have more money to spend, but also constantly interact and persuade their friends to tag along. For the baby boomers, it could be a nostalgic stroll through their childhoods, when burgers joints dotted all across the country. Restaurants like Five Guys try to emulate not only the simplicity of food itself, but also the atmosphere also (think of those free, complimentary peanuts). As for people like me, we were the generation that grew up on the McDonald's and Burger Kings -- and therefore having missed out on the gourmet establishments. Fast-food tastes good, but sooner or later we begin to become bored of them. This comeback of sorts for these types of businesses allow us to try something that our parents or grand-parents considered to be a norm. And it looks like we're hooked.

Fundamentally speaking, gourmet burger joints are successful because they specialize and focus only on select products. This allows them to become better and better at their business (referred to as the economic "learning curve"). Specialization also makes it easier for the customer to be decisive in their food selection -- if they want a burger, they know that Five Guys has good burgers. We may like choices, but oftentimes prefer to have our options narrowed. The simple, no-nonsense approach to serving food seems to be preferred by many individuals. I also suspect the preoccupation with modern food-producing techniques as well as quality -- exemplfied by the documentary "Supersize ME"-- has something to do with the rise of gourmet burger joints.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Music Liners -- "Christ is Risen" by Matt Maher

Aside from music by Hillsong United and a few other songs, my favorite Christian song in recent memory has to be "Christ is Risen" by Matt Maher. It is an incredibly powerful song due in part to the simplicity of its message -- that Christ is alive and has overcome death! In a time where some contemporary Christian music has strayed from central themes from the bible, Maher's song speaks the unadulterated, unchanged truth.

The first time I heard this song was during my church's Easter Sunday worship/celebration. (Methinks "celebration" is the more appropriate term, since that is the significance of the resurrection anyway.) I remember when first singing the chorus...amazing.

As noted above, I really really like the chorus of this song. In particular, it is the lyrics in the form of rhetorical questions that capture my liking for this song. Maher poses two rhetorical questions revolving around the resurrection:
  1. "Oh Death, where is your sting?"
  2. "Oh Hell, where is your victory?"
These two questions are special because they mock (arguably) the two things we fear the most in our lives, death and evil. I especially like the fact that Maher belittles these two fears, by contrasting them with what Christ has done on the cross. In other words, Christ had overcome death and opened the doors for us to be reunited with our God -- therefore we should no longer fear neither death nor hell. It reminds us of the resurrection power and what it implies for our lives.

The song also calls all believers to "come awake, come awake, come rise up from the grave." The "grave" described is not a burial ground, but serves as a metaphor for the slumber we are prone to fall into. We drift from our responsibilities as Christians -- to the extent of calling ourselves Christians but having nothing to show for it. Maher reminds us that as we are alive in Christ, we should act like it. We should not be slumbering like the young man who falls from the window during Apostle Paul's sermon (Acts 20:7-12).

Finally, along the same lines of the previous paragraph, the last part of the chorus is a reminder for all the churches out there to "come and stand in the light". What is implied (at least from my perspective) is for churches everywhere to shake off any rust and preach the message of the cross once more. Churches, like individuals, can drift off due a number of factors.

Psalm 27

Once again, I will be discussing a favorite biblical passage of mine – but this time from the Old Testament. It comes from the Psalm 27, a passage in which the psalmist (assumed to be King David) cries out to God for help and mercy. The passage is relatively long, but every word is heartfelt.

1 The LORD is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me
to devour[a] me,
it is my enemies and my foes
who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the LORD,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle
and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted
above the enemies who surround me;
at his tabernacle I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the LORD.
7 Hear my voice when I call, LORD;
be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
Your face, LORD, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me,
do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me,
the LORD will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, LORD;
lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD.

I first came across this passage during one of my job interview treks (aka 3-4 job interviews in one day). Perhaps I’ve read this psalm before, but I remember it now for the encouragement I received amidst one interview trek. For this particular occasion, I recall waiting for my next interview at a nearby Barnes and Nobles bookstore – feeling very weary and quite unhappy at my own situation. “Taking self-pity” would not be an inaccurate description. But I somehow opened to this psalm while sitting there and it struck me powerfully in its message. The central message is, as the first couple of lines indicate, trusting in the Lord.

The first part of this psalm is akin to posing a rhetorical question: if God is on our side, of whom should we be afraid? The psalmist rightfully declares that the “Lord is my life and my salvation”, and therefore we are to be afraid of nothing. Our confidence is in the Lord, the Creator of all things. To put this psalm in context, King David likely composed it while he was fleeing from the former King Saul of Israel. We can imagine that David could have felt loneliness and very afraid, as Saul commanded the entire army to hunt down and kill him. Yet even in this dire predicament, David remember to pray to God and ask for His help.

I particularly like verse 4, in which the psalmist declares that his only desire is to “dwell in the house of the Lord”. It creates both a beautiful and inspiring imagery: that even amidst the unrest and uncertainty, we can look to God and seek after Him. Because in God’s dwelling, we are kept safe and forever in the presence of our maker. In present-day society, this “house of the Lord” refers to the churches formed for the express purpose for worshippers to congregate and fellowship together. Because one of the best ways to glorify God is to love and care for one another.

Using Children for Political Ends = Crossing the Line

I first got wind of this news from Yahoo! main page, in a video about a congressman's daughter writing a letter in support of a position he did not. It seemed funny at first. Can you imagine if you are a Republican and your children grow up to become Democrats? Some serious rebelliousness issues there. But then I read a little more thoroughly and...was appalled.

As the DailyMail reports, the congressman, state representative Mike Stone, received a batch of letters from third-grade students compelling him to raise the state budget. Among those students writing was his own 8-year old daughter. In particular, the daughter wrote "please raise the budget" and to help keep two teaching assistants. What makes this appalling is that the teacher intentionally organized the students to write on this issue, voicing such a position, for the explicit purpose of sending off to congressmen of influence. In this case, there was direct knowledge that this young girl's father was Mike Stone. Furthermore, it seems like these actions were initiated by the entire public school system.

Representative Stone declared that "as I read through this [letter], anger completely shot through me" -- a sentiment he has every reason to express. Not only is his daughter supporting a political action he objects to, she is too young to understand the issue itself. An eight-year-old girl has much better things to be concerned with than politics, like unicorns and barbies (I kid slightly). It is pretty obvious that she was just being used as a political tool by the teacher/school system for a certain end. How does this come together? The budget issue is about the current clash between the state Republicans and the Democrat governor Beverly Perdue. And as anyone knows, Democrats have the express support of the public school systems and vice versa.

There are methods to influence your representatives, but using their children to do is not one of them. Think about this for a second: do children have the right to vote? The answer is "no", which means they should not be directly contacting their government representatives either. That is the responsibility and right of their parents. Ultimately, children are children -- and not political instruments.

(One thing I just thought of is this: why would the daughter be writing to help the two TAs keep their jobs? Teacher assistants are not needed for most part, unless there are special needs. Teachers should be able to manage their own classes, without further help. If they can't, then maybe they shouldn't be teachers. TAs are largely there to reduce the workload for teacher -- akin to a student taking an exam but having outside help in doing so.)