Monday, July 27, 2009

How to open heavy doors

I'm hoping that I'm not the only one who's gotten momentarily stuck in a doorway because I was too weak sauce to open the door all the way. So those who open doors with their pinkies can stop reading here.

You know it immediately when you didn't open a door wide enough. Except by then you've let go of the door handle and are already halfway through. So most people try one of two things:

1) Stick out an arm or shoulder and try to keep the door from swinging shut on you. If the door is heavy, you're momentarily knocked off balance and look like you just went up against an all-star linebacker. Either way, you take the hit and prove that you're a rock (or a reed) when it comes to stopping doors from prematurely shutting.

2) Be quick. You show that you calculated the width just right so that you can slip through without harm. You are in a hurry and clearly don't want to waste energy in opening the door widely enough for the person behind you. Sometimes, however, you are not so lucky, and everything except one part of your body gets through. In this case you suck it up momentarily and hurry on like nothing just happened. You wait until you're alone in the elevator, when you pull up your sleeve and pitifully nurse the bruises on your elbow.

Most people learn their lesson pretty quickly with a particularly heavy door. So the next time you approach that door, you're mentally prepared. You make a side step, take a deep breath, and put an extra oomph into it. Perfect. But then you do the same thing with the next door and that one turns out to be a little flimsy thing. The door bangs loudly against the wall and you startle half the people in the hallway. Rawr?

So nowadays I avoid these problems by pressing the button for disabled folks.

p.s. My solution also prevents the problem of accidentally trying the wrong door when there is a very conspicuous "Use other door" sign.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Quick Pic

From time to time I like to comment on a random picture.

Courtesy of the Caltech Archives

Physicist extraordinaire riding a bike. He looks so happy, like, "Whoa, physics is actually doing something for me..." What you don't know is that immediately following the picture, he lost his balance and fell off the bike.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Computers are people, too

A while ago, I saw one of the nicest people I know whack her computer on the side of the monitor as if it were just an emotionless piece of machinery. She complained to me that "the piece of crap" took five minutes to open iTunes and deserved some punishment. I replied, "Well, that one time when it opened iTunes in only five seconds, did you give it a cookie?"

Human slavery was abolished 144 years ago, and I think that it's time for artificial slavery to go as well. What I mean is that when you buy a quad-core processor laptop, you have to treat it as a thinking being with limitations. It does math faster than any math whiz you know, plays fifty different kinds of media, and needs less sleep than a CS major at MIT. But that doesn't mean you should abuse it when it can't keep open eighty Firefox windows and wipe your ass at the same time without a little bit of hesitation. Without these beauties of engineering, you'd actually need to learn how to write legibly and read things called books.

Don't think that computers will take all your crap. The next time you get a blue screen of death, think back to the time you threw your Frappuccino at the screen, left it out in the snow, or took it for a swim - there's your reward. Even if you don't do any of these things, you've probably called it names you would never say to a real person, or left it running since you installed iTunes 1.0. Well, when you give your computer too much to do, it gets stressed out and gasps for air (put your ear next to the CPU fan and listen closely). Like all of us, it thinks, feels, and cries - just in binary.

Love your computer and it will love you back. I'm proud to say that I still own a decade-old desktop that has never given me a blue screen of death**.  It's not hard. You don't have to give it daily massages or take it out for dinner on its birthday. But before you hit it again, think about what you would do tonight without the Internet.

**Maybe because it doesn't run on Microsoft Windows.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Eye contact

You can tell that I don't have much of a social life right now when I start writing about eye contact.

It may be a small and insignificant thing, but we make eye contact all the time, inadvertently, purposefully, casually, nervously, confidently, shyly, or with special meaning... (that last one is a little creepy sometimes, yes). I think that in most situations, eye contact is better than no eye contact, because it shows confidence and curiosity in yourself, and who knows, you might get a nice smile in return. When people are deeply in thought or in a hurry to get somewhere, that's a different story, in which case they look ahead or look down. But when you have nothing on your mind, avoiding eye contact is just disappointing. I find that the dirty floor or the fire extinguisher fifty feet away is never as interesting as the moving person passing me by. So I look at people sitting around me in a room, I look at people walking past me in the hallway, I look at people biking past me on the sidewalk, I look at people driving past me on the road, and I look at airplanes flying by overhead (just kidding).

We aren't all actors and actresses, but we still try to give specific kinds of looks and interpret the looks we receive. I tend to give (or think I give) a few different looks. When I'm in a relative hurry and walking fast, I give a casual, quick glance, in an almost businesslike way, kind of like, "Morning, partner." When I'm wandering around slowly and aimlessly, I tend to give an extended, curious look at people passing me by, kind of like, "That's a very interesting hair tie you got there..." In this case I try to accompany it with a smile, which is to say, "Don't get me wrong, I like your hair tie, especially because it matches your shoelaces."

Interpreting other people's looks is interesting. Well, actually, most people give me a generic "mind your own business" look, which doesn't say much. But sometimes, maybe because I've a penetrating stare, I induce a kind of deer-in-the-headlights response, i.e. "why are you staring at me." It's not hostile, just a caught-off-guard look. My response to this is to return the same look and a micro-staring contest ensues for about 1.5 seconds. My friends tell me that I'm having "eye sex" (urban dictionary it), but for me, it happens so unintentionally with anyone that I refuse to believe that I'm doing such a creepy thing.

Eye contact is a convenient way to approach someone and start a conversation. I find that tapping people on the shoulder tends to startle them and make them drop their drink and crick their neck in trying to turn too fast. And if you're standing right in front of them and still can't make eye contact, they probably don't want to talk to you.

Anyway, I've written and you've read enough nonsense about eye contact. But I think it's an interesting interaction in everyday life, even though it won't get you new friends like having a good conversation would. If you have any piercing insights that can illuminate the way we perceive eye contact though, please share.

Last thing - I once made eye contact in the bathroom mirror and proceeded to have a conversation with the person looking only through the mirror, and then I turned and saw he had ridiculous tattoos all over his body and the conversation ended awkwardly.


Over the years, I've come to realize that I'm not photogenic (this is one of several reasons that I have a paper airplane for a profile picture). Of course, the quality of being photogenic is relative to how good you look (or how good you think you look) in real life, because compared to Brad Pitt, I (and most people) look hopelessly unphotogenic.

I've tried to figure out what exactly makes you have or lack beautiful features in photos. Wikipedia tells me that because photos are two-dimensional, we perceive only a projection of the three-dimensional face that lacks depth and angle. Well, duh. So I guess we can't reshape our jawbones (without surgery), move our eyes closer to the bridge of the nose, or turn our ears back farther. But there must be something that we can change to look a tad better in that next picture, right? Maybe your bangs aren't as cute as you thought, or maybe that attractive sideways grin actually looks more like a crooked frown of cluelessness. But facial blemishes sometimes appear out of nowhere on your cheeks, and those mesmerizing eyes lose their glimmer and turn into red spots. Maybe your face is just more attractive in motion...

There's also the issue of subjectivity. This isn't common, but sometimes what you think is Facebook-profile-picture quality might look ridiculous to everyone else. I won't post pictures of me trying to pull off gangsta looks, but you can imagine - or can't imagine - how that worked out. I know some people who would sit there with their cameras and take hundreds of pictures of their best puppy faces or stud looks, but once they pick out the best picture and show it to me, I'd immediately say, "Do you realize that you have a poster advertising Yoga Booty Ballet® in the background?"

The next time you're disappointed at how some pictures turned out, just remember that the purpose of a picture is to capture you in a special context. The context (the Taj Mahal) matters more than how you look (eyes closed). So unless you're a model, don't worry too much about your pictures. People who judge you by that piece of spinach between your teeth obviously haven't been acquainted with your shining personality.

Another summer day

The first of probably many rainy days at Upton, NY. The lab site is wide and empty as ever, with flocks of turkey and deer and the occasional woodchuck. People duck in and out of cars to avoid the rain and a wet and uncomfortable day at work. I've no option but to walk, with my tiny aquamarine umbrella, trying to figure out whether it is better to let my backpack get wet or myself. I walk slowly and carefully across a vast parking lot through the network of puddles. Soon I realize that I've wasted a good five minutes trying to find a dry path through the parking lot, to find myself in front of the Great River that bars me from the sidewalk. Like an idiot, I back out and go all the way around the parking lot.

I arrived at work twenty minutes late, but no one was there. I fumble with four sets of keys to open the main door, lab door, office door, and meeting room door. I finally sit down, set up my laptop, fill up my water bottle from a water cooler that is at least half a century old, pull out the 113th peanut butter and jelly sandwich I've made this summer, and start work (writing my blog posts).