Sunday, January 27, 2008

What Google Really Needs...

Google is all right as a search engine, I guess, but one obvious feature is lacking: a Scrabble mode!

Those who play Scrabulous on Facebook often find the need to Google a word to confirm if it's a real word. Notice that for any word that Google finds in its dictionary, there is a link to a definition in the upper-right corner of the results page. Search for one word, and there's a separate link "[definition]". Search for multiple words, and each valid one becomes a link to its definition. This leads to the technique of searching for multiple variations in one shot, like trying different vowels and searching for, let's say, "nat net nit not nut" to see which ones are valid. (Looks like Google gets confused about "not" and doesn't think it deserves a definition.)

However, Google will happily give you definitions for abbreviations and acronyms that aren't in the Scrabble dictionary. AO is the country code for Angola. EXO and EXA are prefixes that mean things. No good for Scrabulous.

So, how about it Google? If you can give me "personalized" search results, surely you can put a checkbox somewhere to only show definition links for real Scrabble words!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Rafael Nadal: The Fred Thompson Strategy

[I'm writing this having watched the semi-final of Tsonga def. Nadal, but don't know how Tsonga will do in the final.]

Tsonga's win over Nadal illustrates perfectly how less effort can translate into more results in tennis. Knowing that Nadal likes to grind his opponents down, Tsonga refused to get into a competition of emoting and fist-pumping, which would just play to Nadal's strong point of endurance. Instead, Tsonga played it cool between points and after winning games. Plenty of effort to race after defensive shots or bash his own winners, but dialling down the energy afterwards. No elaborate jumping around while waiting to return serve. And when faced with favourable court geometry, winning points with short dinks and drop-volleys. (Amazing how many players have no strategy for approach shots or volleys other than hitting risky deep shots, that are easy for a fast player to get if they move early and guess right.)

I was also impressed at Tsonga's crafty approaches, again taking a cue from Fred Thompson by coming in later than anybody else would. Nadal has his options worked out in advance when someone hits an obvious approach shot and rushes in behind it. Tsonga paused just long enough for Rafa to decide on a safe high defensive shot, then closed for winning volley.

Tennis is like rock climbing in that the best strategies often require less physical effort than you would think. In rock climbing, you keep reminding yourself to just hang there with muscles relaxed when you're not actively pushing higher. In tennis, you should remind yourself periodically that the racquet and the ball each just weigh a couple of ounces, you should never feel like you're straining to swing hard.

To get a power boost on groundstrokes, start swinging a little before you normally would, accelerate gradually but steadily, and keep the followthrough going until the swing stops by itself. It's when you tense the opposing muscles, either in anticipation of a sudden impact or to stop the swing suddenly, that each stroke feels like a major effort. Keep things loose, and your opponent's hardest shot feels like a feather coming off your strings.

For a faster serve, visualize yourself using 75% effort. Making yourself relax a little can (paradoxically) produce more power than straining trying to fire away at 100%.

I also like to minimize the exertion while waiting to receive serve. Some amount of rocking, flexing the knees, or going up on the toes can keep you ready to move in any direction, but the motion should always be slight enough to feel effortless. Otherwise, you'll tire yourself out in long matches or lengthy receiving games.

One last tip along these lines. You've probably heard advice to support the racquet with your opposite hand. That's not just to keep everything lined up at a sensible angle. Use the opposite hand to take the weight of the racquet between points; even drop your racquet hand occasionally and support thcquet at the throat with your other hand. That can make a big difference in whose shoulder or wrist cramps up in the third set!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Berkeley Restaurant Review: 900 Grayson

I was telling someone about this blog over lunch, when they asked whether I posted restaurant reviews. I've never gotten into Yelp or other sites that take ownership of user-written reviews, so why not post some of my own here? Good idea.

Let's start with 900 Grayson, a breakfast and lunch place just inside the Berkeley border with Emeryville. We went there today while running some errands in the area. It's on 6th, a couple of blocks north of Ashby.

On an earlier visit, we were perturbed by how loud the place was; everyone was carrying on a full-volume conversation that never let up from the moment they sat down. Also the staff was inattentive, which was a common theme in the Yelp reviews. But the food was OK, and most breakfast/lunch/brunch places have some strike against them, so they stayed on the list for a followup visit.

Again, loud loud loud inside. This time the staff was very polite and attentive -- clearly management has read the reviews of the service. But today the food was markedly vegetarian-unfriendly. Four sandiches on the menu, including "panini of the day", and nothing meatless. A dish combined seitan and waffles -- clearly intended to be the single vegetarian entree -- but eggs feaured too prominently so I passed. I'm not a vegan, but dishes that are heavy on egg don't agree with me, and I notice when otherwise vegetarian-friendly places go overboard with cheese and eggs. Nice soup with a smoky pepper flavour. A nicely presented salad with pear, spinach, cashews and cranberries, but (a) not enough to be filling, and (b) hardly any pear or any noticeable flavour. The herb fries are always good, but when trying to make a meal out of the sides, I can't help but notice how pricey they are. The sandwiches all come with fries, but again, no vegetarian sandwiches today.

So, although I don't own any copyright on the whole "thumbs" deal, if I did, I would reluctantly have to point mine down. OK to pop in for fries and soup and maybe dessert if in the neighbourhood, but not for a substantial meal. I deduct points but still enjoy fancy dinner places like Lalimes that have a similar-themed menu -- natural beef this, prawn that -- yet 900 Grayson falls short for me on vegetarian/vegan-friendly dishes.

Coincidentally, the SF Chronicle just interviewed author Michael Pollan over lunch at this same restaurant.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Quick, what's the most boring thing you could possibly photograph during a trip? A sign? Right! Now I will tell you... why you should photograph lots of signs.

Even if you never include any signs in your photo slideshows, just having the pictures as you're sorting through them helps you remember exactly where you were for a sequence of shots. Maybe you did several trails and scenic overlooks on the same trip, and it's useful to know which pictures are from which spot. For famous locales, you might even assign keywords using the tags feature of Photoshop or other photo management software. Be scrupulous in starting every trip segment with a shot of the relevant sign, and you can quickly select a bunch of thumbnails and assign them all the same tag.

When you are doing a slideshow, a quick shot of a sign can help to serve as an establishing shot for the photos that follow. You can skip over it quickly, with just a few words in case the name isn't familiar. It adds more impact than if you just say "next we did the such-and-such trail" -- your viewers will see how long the trail is, the elevation of the peak you're climbing, how antique and ornate the street sign is, and so on.

Our recent trip to The Grand Canyon, Bryce National Park, and Zion National Park really illustrated this point for me. My wife diligently took a picture of the sign at every landmark. I figured, why use up several megabytes on the memory card of my expensive DSLR for a picture of a flat board with some lettering? After all, my wife is getting it in case we need it in a slideshow. Well, now sorting at home through a few thousand pictures, I really wish I had taken some reminders of which pictures are from Rainbow Point and which from Fairyland Point. Or when we did the Queen's Garden trail, did we do the Wall Street branch or Thor's Hammer?

Trying to cross-reference mine and my wife's pictures would be a pain -- the clocks on our cameras are a few minutes apart, and we only adjusted one of them for the right time zone, so combining them and doing "sort by date" wouldn't work well. For a long or far-ranging trip, go into the settings menus and make sure all cameras have identical times to the minute, and are all on the same time zone.

A little skill with the camera menus will also help with memory card anxiety. Practice switching to a lower resolution to shoot the sign (which after all, you're not going to blow up into a poster-sized print), then back to high resolution, RAW+JPEG, or what have you for the other pictures.

OK, trail signs, road signs, what other sign-like things can we think of to shoot?

Take pictures of informative signs about plants, wildlife, and geology. You might use 'em to identify flora, fauna, and landmarks from other pictures. If the sign is too wide and your camera resolution isn't high enough, take separate right and left shots so that you can read the text when you view the picture.

If you have a memorable meal in a restaurant, take pictures of the relevant menu pages. (You can take the menu away with you and do this at home or at your lodging later.) You'll have a reminder of what to recommend to others, or what wine you really liked.

Sometimes taking a picture of a map display, or a printed map, comes in handy later. I've had situations with 2 people and 1 map, the people need to separate, and the mapless person has a picture for safety. Zoom way in and scroll around in review mode if you need to consult the map on the trail or on the road.

One last tip on this subject. Sometimes I'll want to know at what point I changed some camera setting, such as white balance or ISO. I might want to evaluate how well the change worked, or apply some adjustment like color correction to only the photos taken with a particular setting. (For example, lighten all the photos taken at ISO 100; apply warming filter to all photos taken with white balance "cloudy".) I'll take a throwaway photo of a consistent subject (the sky, the ground, my foot, etc.) to signal when I'm making a change like this in the camera settings.

I hope you'll agree that signs aren't really such boring subjects after all!