Friday, July 24, 2009

Learning Chinese

I've always wanted to learn Mandarin. Back when I was going to Beijing more often, I took a 6 week course that met twice a week to learn the very basics. From that class I remember how to say hello, goodbye, thank you, train, apple, I, you, America, China, and a few other words :) But it taught me the tones, which was the most helpful part, so when I see a word in Pin Yin today, I know how to say it even if I don't know what it means.

Now that I'm headed back to Beijing in October, I thought it was a perfect excuse to try to learn some more and maybe actually be able to speak more than a few simple words while I'm there. So I signed up for the online version of Rosetta Stone which lets you access all 3 course levels of Chinese for 6 months. Since it was about the same price as just the first course on CD, this seemed to be the best deal. And if I felt ambitious, I could really get my money's worth!

I have to admit that initially I was really skeptical to their whole approach. There is no English at all, no instructions, no "lessons" in the sense of being taught something and then repeating it. It's all learn by doing and all based on pattern-matching. The idea being that you learn best when you have to actually make the connection in your brain without being told what you're even looking at.

So they have screens with men and women, girls and boys and you learn all four words just by association. Or a man eating and a woman drinking and you have to figure out which phrase applies to each. At first I just couldn't imagine learning a language without the standard dictionary approach of here's the english and here's the word in the foreign language: now memorize and repeat. So it was weird getting started, but after an hour or two I realized that with all this pattern matching I was really learning. And not just learning the words, but the grammar constructions as well. It was starting to get interesting.

Then today at lunch I started thinking in Chinese when looking at objects around the room and seeing people in line waiting to order. And the words just came to me, even though I hadn't studied them in a traditional sense. And that's when I knew I was really learning things the right way.

So I'm only on Course 1, Lesson 3, but I highly recommend this way of learning! I'm looking forward to putting some of these new language skills to use in China in two months!


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bastille Day 5k

This past Thursday, I ran in the Bastille Day 5k in the West Loop. And yes, it's weird that the Bastille Day race is held a week before the actual day. It was my first race since Shamrock Shuffle back in March, and only the fourth time I had been out running since then. I know, I've been bad this spring/summer! All of the training for the winter marathon just made me not want to run for a while. But that didn't get in the way from it being a really fun race!

I was a bit nervous about the quality of the race after last year (when they put all of our gear check bags in the gutter unattended in the pouring rain in a not-so-great part of the city). This year's packet pickup didn't help much either as it took 4 people working together about 5 minutes just to look up someone's name and get them their bib and shirt (no goodie bag, as they ran out after 1,000 and had 6,000ish signed up).

After last year's gear check issues, I decided to go bagless to this event. I stuffed my ID, train pass, keys, and $20 into the key pocket in my running shorts and jumped on the train into the city. It was nice to show up at the start line and not have to worry about checking anything and waiting in lines. I was able to get a little cup of water and walk around and stretch.

It was fairly warm at the start, about 80 degrees, but it was at 7:30 at night so at least there wasn't a ton of direct sunlight with the buildings catching most of it. The race started right on time and I fell into a pace of about 9 minute miles. That's definitely less than normal for me in a race this distance, but since I hadn't run much lately, it felt like a good pace.

5k sure feels short when the last two races you've run are a marathon and an 8k. I made it around to the halfway point and ran right past the water table. I was feeling great (probably due to the slow pace!). As I made it to the 3 mile marker with 0.1 to go, I was starting to feel the heat and longing for the water at the end. I put in a solid finish and went searching for post-race snacks. My final time was just over 28 minutes, definitely my worst 5k in a long time, but I wasn't doing this one for speed. My one issue with this race is the lack of energy drinks at the end. They just had water. But it was great to have some water, bagels, granola bars, and bananas as I made my way through the finishing chute.

The race is held in conjunction with a west loop block party, so I walked over there to see what was going on. They had a cover band playing various 80s and 90s songs which was a lot of fun and some French wine to go with the Bastille Day theme. A nice relaxing end to the run for sure. It felt weird walking back to the train without a bag, but nice to not have to search in the gutter for it :)


Sunday, July 05, 2009


Last weekend I was in NYC for the program committee meeting for ACM Multimedia. For those of you not in academia, a program committee is basically the group of people that sit around and figure out which papers go into the proceedings of a conference, in this case one of the big multimedia conferences. I was on a new track this year called Human Centered Multimedia, which was fairly exciting. It's trying to bring more HCI methods into the community and look at multimedia generation and use from a user's point of view (which hasn't always been the case in this community).

I flew on on Saturday afternoon and got to spend a little bit of the day wandering around the city. I made it up to the Hayden Planetarium (of Neil DeGrasse Tyson fame) to see the pluto-less planet exhibit. The Planetarium was really nicely done and really interactive which I enjoyed. They even had a little part of an exhibit on AGN which is what a friend of mine is studying for her PhD!

After the planetarium, I made it over to a vegan restaurant that I've been meaning to try for years: Candle Cafe. It's on the upper east side and has a nicer (and I've been told pricier) cousin Candle 79 on 79th St. Candle Cafe was really nice and the menu had way too many things that looked amazing. I settled on the seitan with gravy and mashed potatoes and was not disappointed! Definitely some of the best seitan I've ever had! I finished it up with a chocolate mousse on top of a cookie and that just hit the spot!

But I did leave room for one of my NYC favorites, curry fries and Yuengling from St. Andrews near Times Sq. I met up with an old work colleague there for some good conversation on the economy, research, and mobile computing! All of the lawn chairs in Times Sq were a bit odd though. I still don't know how I feel about that. At least it makes it easier to cross the street to get to Jamba :)

The PC meeting started bright and early the next day at the Waldorf-Astoria. The Waldorf sort of let me down with long check in lines and way too cold air conditioning (when it was only in the mid 70s outside!). But the meeting went well and we got down to our final paper list with an accept rate of 13.5% (which is crazy low!). I was pretty excited that my paper on TuVista was one of the ones accepted (again for those that don't know, the authors or people affiliated with the authors need to leave the room when your paper is being discussed and you never learn who reviewed your paper). I had a 5, 4, 4, 2 for reviews, which continues my streak of large variance and always having someone who doesn't like my paper :)

Overall, I really liked the set of selected papers we ended up with. In previous years, it's been hard to find enough good ones. I just wish this track had some more submissions that were dead on the description of the track. I want to see more studies of how to produce multimedia that's enjoyable or ways to navigate large databases of multimedia on mobile devices or research methods for the multimedia domain. There were good papers, but I guess since the track is new, it will take a while before people know that it's a place to submit papers like this. I would have had no idea if I wasn't on the program committee.

The PC meeting ended with dinner at the Rock Cafe in the plaza outside 30 Rockefeller Center. Definitely a nice end to the day! The next morning, several members from the PC presented their work in the annual workshop after the PC meeting. I got to see what an old lab-mate of mine under Trevor was up to, so that was fun!

And I couldn't make it out of NYC without stopping for some deep-dish vegan pizza at Cafe Viva on 2nd Ave. Always one of my favorite stops in the city!

All in all, a great trip. And definitely fun to put on my academic hat for a while and really think hard about other peoples' work.