Monthly Archives: July 2009

For the Love of Set!

We all have our nerdy pleasures. My brother, for instance, is the total man’s man—confident, athletic, good looking, by no means a typical nerd—but even he gets tickled reading his HTML manual and perturbed by the use of redundant acronyms like ATM machine. I, for one, get really animated about philosophies of metaphysics. I have a theory that all people harbor nerdy fascinations for many kinds of things. If you don’t agree, look at how people spend their leisure time. Though a general public, I would wager, much prefers watching TV to exploring an atlas, like my dad, there is a reason why most newspapers print crossword puzzles. Most everyone likes playing brain games, whether they are crosswords, Sudoku, or chess. It is with games where my true nerdom emerges: I am a Set Master.

Set is a game with patterned cards. I got my first deck of Set cards from my grandmother when I was little and I’ve been playing it ravenously ever since. I carry the deck with me when ever I go on a trip. It’s pretty grungy now, to be honest, but still quite useable. I teach everyone who wants to learn and then some. Set is one of those games you may hate but you still find it hard to quit. It’s truly addicting.

I figured I would give a quick tutorial on how to play the game here. You can also learn from the game website, setgame.com, where an animated farmer will explain the rules to you in a flash presentation. There are also alternative rules for Set explained on the website, along with a daily puzzle where you have to find six sets in a layout of twelve cards. Embracing my nerdom, I confess I play the daily puzzle almost every day. I don’t like to brag but my best time is 22 seconds.

Here are some set cards:

Each card has four characteristics. They are

Color

Shape

Shade

Number

In order to find a set, you need to find three cards that are either ALL THE SAME or ALL DIFFERENT in each of the four INDIVIDUAL characteristics. The three cards above consist of a set because they are all different colors, all different shades, all different shapes, and all different numbers.

Here is a full layout:

There a few different real sets in this picture, and many non-sets. Let’s say we look at cards with two diamonds. In the upper left corner there are red stripes, and in the lower left corner there are a solid purple and a solid green. In many ways, this looks like a set, because they are all twos, they are all different colors, and they are same shape. But notice that the green and purple cards have the same shade. If the red card were also solid, or if the green or purple card were hollow, then we would have a set. Let’s look at another example. Take the single red squiggle, the two purple diamonds, and the three solid green ovals. This is a set, because they are all different colors, all different numbers, all the same shade, and all different shapes.

Get the picture?

You can play Set alone or with as many people as can fit around the cards. The person who collects the most Sets wins. In order to claim a set, a person shouts out the word “Set!” and then play stops for that person to collect the Set. The cards taken are then replaced by the dealer.

There are times when there are no sets to be found in the twelve cards. In this case, just add more cards to the layout.

In the event that someone yells “Set” and is mistaken, an optional rule states that this person has to give up one of the Sets he or she has won and replace it in the deck. If you play with this rule, be very careful before you make claims.

Not to deter you from playing this genuinely fun game, but I just thought I would give you an idea of how nerdy this game can get. Picture this: A science competition…ten competitors sit at a round table in some hotel in Albany, all of them leaning in over twelve Set cards, all of them hissing “S’s,” hesitant to actually claim a Set. You can cut the tension with a knife. Yeah, that’s right. I was there. And Proud.

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Hooray!

Hooray! At last! My very own PHOTO PORTFOLIO! Check it out! My brother, in his emerging computer science genius, has been working night and day (practically) building me a beautiful website at emilycapo.com. I have my own dot com! This is so exciting! I feel so professional!

You may remember several months ago when I published a blog post about the difficulties of finding a free photo portfolio with workable features. I still have not yet found such a thing. Emilycapo.com, of course, is not free as it is my own domain name, but at least my brother has the freedom to build all the features he can add directly into the design. All I had wanted and failed to find in a preset portfolio was a black template, an easy-to-use slideshow feature that doesn’t reorder the photos, unlimited or at least a large allotment of digital space, and an uploader that can upload multiple photos at a time. I could find some of these features, but never all. There were all sorts of weird features I came across, such as a photoblog that organized photos by the date you uploaded them, but would only allow one photo per day. It didn’t matter what day it was, even if it were in, say, 1950. I couldn’t understand who would want this system, let alone have the patience enough to work with it.

But all this doesn’t matter anymore, thanks to Dan. Yay!

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There, I fixed It.

Failblog recently linked to a site I had never seen before called There, I fixed It.  It is a photoblog full of shoddy quick-fixes for everything from a homemade jacuzzi (a bathtub over a campfire) to a fire alarm alternative (A jiffypop hung from the ceiling).  The site doesn’t have nearly as many entries as Failblog, but what is there is choice.  The engineer/problem-solver in you will drop to the floor laughing.

Here is a sample:

tifi-hotdog

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Inspiration in Stone

I had the occasion to go to Washington DC this past weekend. I hadn’t been there in years, so I was really excited to go exploring. Most of all I wanted to have a Mr. Smith moment at the Lincoln Memorial.

For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is, well, one of the greatest movies ever. I can hardly think of any other film that so thoroughly stirs the patriotic heart than Capra’s Mr. Smith. In the film, the newly appointed senator, played by Jimmy Stuart, arrives in Washington and becomes mesmerized by the beauty of the Capitol Dome and moves towards it as if in a dream. He spends the whole day touring the monuments and ends his excursion at the Lincoln Memorial where the camera goes all fuzzy and Smith gazes up into Lincoln’s face as a little boy next to him reads the Gettysburg address aloud. A bit of contrived cheesiness, maybe, but nonetheless extremely effective and tear-provoking.

I wondered as I half-marched, half-skipped up the stairs to the monument how many people felt the same way as Mr. Smith. How many people were equally if not more moved by the grandeur of the place? How many of those hundreds of people that ascend those stairs, read those words, and look into that face come to appreciate the genius, the solemnity, and the significance of this man’s work for America’s history and conscience? I wanted to know what motivates people to make this American pilgrimage to Lincoln.

As I stood inside the monument, analyzing the two speeches carved on each end, I asked why people come, especially in this age where the popular media downplays patriotism and people tend to forget that government representatives only have authority because we loan it to them. Playing the cynic, nowadays, seems easier and easier. I don’t know whether this is a direct result of darkening times, or just seeing shades of grey as I get older, as the Billy Joel song goes. It could also be the case that being a cynic has been and always will be easier than being a proponent. Whatever the cause or causes, it seems that the general trend, particularly as it includes popular opinions of patriotism, is one of cynicism: ‘patriotism is for Bible Belt hicks; I prefer to be a citizen of the world. America is an oppressive power anyway so there is little reason to feel proud of it.’ This view changes with geography, of course, but in New York, where I come from, this has long been the popular attitude. If I showed too much enthusiasm for God and country I was mocked. My experience is not the only testament to this feeling. The New York Times shares this attitude daily. When was the last time you saw the New York Times say something patriotic? And I’m not talking about Obama idol worship. I mean real, sincere claims that the American ideal is something worth protecting. Now, I probably shouldn’t make too many generalizations about The Times, as I try to avoid reading it. Then again, I avoid it for this very reason.

I once took a class called, “Telling the Truth: Skepticism, Relativism and Bullshit.” (I know, awesome right? BS appears on my transcript). In the class we read On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. To define his term, Frankfurt depicted a leader of a Fourth of July parade, bellowing out patriotic gibberish in the most enthusiastic of tones while simultaneously not believing a word of it. The very fact that Frankfurt uses false patriotism as a facet of bullshit, I think, communicates the feeling that there is little about the country of which we can truly be proud. Frankfurt was relying not only on the prevalence of speech makers who lack sincerity, but also on the idea that his readers would all relate to that particular example of lacking sincerity. This example, therefore, can serve as an indicator that true patriotism falls by the wayside in popular culture.

In another example, I once saw an interview conducted by the Colbert Report (it might have been the Daily Show or Conan, I don’t remember) of the Code Pink protesters in Berkley. The interview said to them as they stood outside protesting Marine recruitment, “Man, free speech is great. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had a group of people dedicated to protecting that right?” All the protesters thought that would be a great idea, if only. Dopes.

There are many such instances of Americans living in complete ignorance and/or denial of their liberties and the structures protecting them. This is a real shame. As Mr. Smith says, “Liberty is too precious a thing to be kept in books. Men should hold it up in front of them every day of their lives and say, “I’m free, to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, but I can.”” So my question is this: if Mr. Smith’s way of thinking is not the popular way, then why do people keep coming to see Lincoln?

I took a picture of the words carved in stone. Words Carved in Stone, I thought. That’s a big deal. To carve things in stone is quite a testament to the worth of those things. Someone, if not many people, thought Lincoln’s legacy was worth preserving in monument form. This may seem an obvious point, but it is an important one. In 1922, when the monument was dedicated, there existed a significant quorum of people valuing Lincoln’s ideals enough to construct this memorial and immortalize his image and words. Since then visitors have ascended the steps, also valuing his legacy as well as the beauty of the monument. Every single person I saw the evening I made the trip must have had at least a sliver of sympathy for the values underlying both the building’s existence and the presidency to which it is dedicated. Whether these visitors deconstructed the speeches for their literary value or whether they just like looking into the eyes of the enormous statue, they all saw there something worthy of the trip. If they did not, I cannot conceive of why they would go. Perhaps I make too quick of a conclusion in this, as people do things all the time without finding inherent value in the activity. A teenager, for instance, might easily be too swept up in an attitude of rebellion his parents might have to drag him around the sites of DC. But assuming that people exercise free will, we all have a choice to visit a place like the Lincoln Memorial, and thousands make that choice, consciously, every day of the year. This means that those thousand people must have something in common, namely an appreciation of the beauty of the building, the truth in Lincoln’s words, and the goodness for which he stood. Though reasons for visiting must differ tremendously, I hypothesize that an overwhelming percentage of visitors necessarily value the ideals on which this country was founded and for which Lincoln fought, and an even greater number can at least appreciate some element of goodness, beauty and truth in the monument that gives it its worth. Therefore, regardless of the temptation to speak and act cynically, to downplay the importance of underlying truths or goodness that guide us as people, the fact of the matter is that millions of people visit these monuments, attracted to them because they see in them goodness, beauty and truth. American ideals live, as evident by the throngs of American pilgrims ascending those stairs.

I left the Memorial filled with hope. Regardless of one’s political affiliations, places like the Lincoln Memorial not only attract us through our deep sense of patriotic pride, but they also fuel our patriotism. Whatever tangent the government may follow, veering away from the Constitution and the liberties it protects, the government is, after all, by the people, of the people and for the people. We, the people, have the authority. Lincoln’s words empower us to take part in our society. They also remind us that we need not go along with the flow but speak out for rights, defending them when they need defense and praising them as they deserve to be praised. If ever we feel tempted to get swept up in cynicism, we must only remember that we are not alone in our love of America. Hundreds, thousands of people show this love at the Lincoln Memorial every day.

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Nerd Stuff

My brother just introduced us to Ted Talks (www.ted.com), a website of free videos on subjects ranging from the psychology of psychopathic killers to the nature of time. It is a nice way to take a gander into some of the forefront of scientific thought in many different fields. Ted Talks does a great thing in the sense that the Talks take complicated topics and present them in a manageable form, easy enough for the layman to understand without watering it down too much. Best of all, the talks I’ve seen so far seem dedicated not only to communicating the subject itself but also why it is ground-breaking. I feel this is what the layman frequently needs most.

Check out this video. It is twenty minutes long, so make sure you have enough time to give it your attention, but trust me, it’s worth it. Hans Rosling is like the science teacher you always wished you had. His enthusiasm for his subject matter bubbles over and sweeps you up in his mirth. I never knew statistics could be so interesting. Not to mention, there is animation.

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Mountain-top Eavesdropping

A few days ago I hiked to the top of Bear Mountain. Not a major feat, as it is only about a mile and a half ascent, but it was one of the top-ten days of the year, as my dad likes to say, so a nice little day hike was certainly called for. The sky was blue, the greenery fine, and the blueberries abundant. I love the Bear Mountain climb.

Thing about Bear Mountain, though, is when you get to the top, peaceful moments of solitude and contemplation are really quite impossible. Bear Mountain has been a state park for almost a century, and since its inception it has had a road all the way to the summit. With roads come non-climbers. It is not that I begrudge anyone of wanting to see a view or get outside, particularly to a place as pretty as Bear Mountain. And it is not that I intend on whining that I can’t have a mountain all to myself. I hope I’m not that much of a selfish grouch. On the contrary, I kind of like having all those people up there, albeit, for somewhat questionable motives. I got a big kick out of spying on all the non-climbers.

I got to the top and passed by a couple of lady bikers, leather clad and looking a bit surly, no doubt warm from wearing, uh, leather on a summer day. I walked down the rock spine and past a couple sprawled out on a picnic blanket. I found it interesting that not only was the girl was facing away from her boyfriend, but she also had her back to the view, and was instead completely absorbed with her cell phone. Despite the fact we were in a park, cell phone service was actually found in abundance on the mountain top, much to the glee of the non-climbers, all of them shocked and awed by the level of cell phone service there was in the ‘wilderness.’

I seated myself on a rock with a bit of shade and pulled out my journal. I barely managed to muffle a laugh when I saw a gaggle of teenagers waddling up the hill in flip flops. The boys’ clothes were as baggy as the girls’ clothes were tight. They all clutched cell phones in their hands. The girls teeter-tottered their way up the hill, the boys had more of a lumbering affect. One of the boys offered to spot one of the girls, so that, in his words, “She wouldn’t roll all the way down the hill.” Out of the blue, one of the girls announced to the mountain in the whiniest of tones, “Ohmigod, I wanna go to White Castle!”

As I sat there writing I heard a family come up behind me looking for a spot to settle. I heard a little girl say, “Ooo Mommy, look at that girl!” “Yes honey,” said the mom, “She is writing.” I then heard boy say, “Hey, let’s go over there!” The mom responded, “No, no, come this way. Don’t bother the writing girl, you’ll give her writers’ block.” I grinned, even though she couldn’t see it. A few minutes I turned around to see the family all bunched together and yelling a resounding chord of “Cheeeeeesseee!” as someone took their picture.

Though hiking often sees its best days when the hiker finds the woods all to herself, hiking has other perks too, even if they shamelessly include eavesdropping.

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America the Beautiful

Today in church we sang America the Beautiful to open up the service. At first, I thought it was a little inappropriate if not a little bit cheesy. I love the Fourth of July, but I went to church for a spiritual message, not superficially patriotic plug. I quickly realized this was a stupid impulse. I had never before sung any other verse of the song other than the first, the most popular. Little did I know that the other neglected words would have so much wisdom for us. The song shows that our country’s history, character, and spirit all exist by the grace of God. This time of year we treasure our independence from all rulers apart from God, an independence to be dependent on God Himself.

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

When we talk about Independence Day, we rarely if ever think about the day as gaining independence from Britain. Of course, that is what came after years of war, but liberation from Britain never seems to be a focal point of the Fourth of July celebrations. I think this separates us from many the independence days of other countries in the sense that those days mark the point at which liberty was won by war. Our independence day marks the moment at which our forefathers jointly asserted a truth they held absolute, namely that all men had inalienable rights and should any tyrannical power threaten those rights, men had a further right to establish a government based in liberty. On the one hand, that document agreed upon in early July of 1776 was just an idea. Ideas and ideals, points of view and opinions. They are not worth very much by themselves. Why don’t we, like other countries, celebrate the day the war ended instead of the day it took full force? It is because the ideals are the ground on which our country stands! The sensibilities of the founding fathers, the forward thinking of those men, the commitment to truth, the heroism to fight for principles like justice, law, and liberty…It is all these things that made America and made it great! John Adams would testify to this. He knew that true victory would be won not on the battlefield but in the hearts and minds of countrymen as they realized their infinite value and human dignity. He knew that if they would assert a worldview in which men are of equal worth in God’s eyes, they would do everything to uphold their rights against oppressive powers. He knew that it was in the ideal where the miracle would occur. As you may know, Adams made a hypothesis about Independence Day that borders on prophesy. He expected that would be a day of great celebration for years to come, and he even went into the nature of the celebration, describing neighborhood picnics and everything. Of course, he thought the day would be July 2nd, the day the day on which the Congress voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence, but no matter. He knew then that the war began as a war of principle, that there are ideas worth celebrating.

John Adams also knew that whatever success America would see would be through the Grace of God. I love how this song reiterates in every stanza how utterly dependent we are on God. It is for Him to mend our flaws and establish His law. It is for Him to define success not as the world defines it but as it pertains to all things Holy. It is by His Grace that we may indeed be a peaceful community, striving to live and die for the promise of His Kingdom, His law, and His love finally being established. He is the main actor in our country’s fate. The song makes this utterly clear. The founding fathers established a country in which we preserve our liberty to be servants of God. Though it may sound like a contradiction, being free to be in service, it is really a beautiful thing. Our government of the people, by the people, and for the people, establishes those people to be the government’s source of authority. Leaders serve us, we do not serve leaders. Because of this beautiful system, we then are free to worship and serve whatever higher authority we deem worthy of our attention. In this sense, we are independent to be dependent on God. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s. This means that commit ourselves to civic duties for the sake of community, but we give our allegiance to God, our very creator, for the sake of His Kingdom coming.

I like to think of July Fourth as a second Thanksgiving. Along with seeing a lot of people and eating a bunch of food, both holidays ought to be times of reflection, evaluation, and abundant thanks. I love my freedoms. I burst with ecstasy at the realization that I can live in a country where I am free to assert two kinds of citizenship: the first in a country stronger and better designed than any other in history, and a second in the Kingdom of God. I thank God for America and pray that He will indeed shed His Grace upon her.

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I did it!

I did it! I did it! La la la la la la! I completed the triathlon! Yes, it was only a sprint triathlon, but still, I did it!

The morning of the race I awoke apprehensive and slow moving. I told myself that it was going to be fun, that it was like getting up to spend the day at an amusement park where you know you will have fun even if you are on your feet all day. This would be just another form of adrenaline rush. No biggie. Besides, most of the other people would be doing it for a bit of recreation anyway. I will just fit in with the crowd.

Little did I know that most of the other competitors would be some of the fittest people I had ever seen clad in the spiffiest gear people can buy. There was a relay team warming up on bikes, all spandexed appropriately aloft their thousand dollar bicycles perched in some sort of mechanism that allowed them to pedal in place. Looking around the transition spots, I noticed almost everyone else had some fancy shmancy wet suit on. Whatever, I thought, it’s the Hudson River, not the Arctic Sea. Apparently, however, the wetsuits help with buoyancy. Oh, Great…everyone else has an advantage. No matter, it is not a contest anyway, I told myself. It was just about achieving a personal goal.

The wind was higher than normal kicking up from the northwest. On the Hudson River, this means waves. My brother Dan had hoped there would be rough water, thinking that since he is not a fast swimmer, the waves would slow everyone else down. I found out after the race the waves and current actually caused trouble for some folks. Apparently, some people got caught in a current and were sucked around the jetty and had to be rescued with jet skis. It is kind of funny actually. Of course, I am only at liberty to say this because no one got hurt.

The transition from swimming to biking was not really that hard. If I was tired at this point, it was not from the swim so much as my continued shock that most everyone else I saw seemed more prepared than I was. I felt like I was in over my head even though I had left the water. I soon realized, and to an extent, was comforted by the fact that I could only go so fast on my recreational bicycle. As I took to the pedals, I felt there was nothing I could do but my best and ignore the person after person who, no matter how fat or old, passed me by. I reckoned that where it came to the bike part, any competition of skill was skewed by whoever had more money to buy the fanciest bike. I think I got my bike when I was ten, and the gears are rusty. Oh well. Realizing all this turned the bike segment into quite a lovely outing. Towards the end, just as I started to get nervous about the upcoming run, I noticed that the event planners had strategically placed pep signs, my favorite one being, “Pain is Temporary. Quitting is forever!” Well, Good Heavens, I thought, that doesn’t leave me much of a choice, now, does it?

The transition to running was hard as expected. I couldn’t manage a very good pace. By this time, the day had gotten quite hot, and most of the course was placed in direct sunlight. They only had water at the beginning and middle of the course, making the hot trail, especially up the hill, rather excruciating. Just as I thought I was pulling into a home stretch, they pulled a fast one. Going directly back, apparently, did not equal the full distance, so to make up for this, they decided to add a little loop right in the sunniest spot they could have possibly chosen. It felt like falling victim to a sadistic joke, running around those cones at the very moment I thought I was so close to finishing. Praise the Lord, the actual home stretch was in the shade, and as I ran through, they announced my name and people applauded, and I got a bunch of free stuff including a medal and some kind of nasty, blue carbonated energy drink.

Overall, the race was not nearly as tough as I thought it would be. I think I could have definitely prepared better, especially for the run. Next time, if there is a next time, I will use a real road bike to see how much time I can shave off. I may even where a stupid wet suit. (By the way, the water wasn’t even cold). The race was over before I knew it. It felt like just a really intense hour and a half work out. I am thrilled I did it, for not only did I achieve my goal, but I can have the confidence that I can do this kind of thing, and I know what to expect if I ever do it again.

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