Monthly Archives: June 2010


Two years ago a friend gave me an old computer from 1999. I thought I might eventually find a use for it, but by the time I did it refused to boot. It sat, broken, in a corner of my room, until yesterday, when our furniture rearrangements left me with a new round of additional clutter, and I decided to give up on fixing it. Instead, I took out the hard drives, which could still contain my friend’s private data. I posted the remainder on Craigslist in the “Free” section.

I posted it at 6:48 PM, and the first taker replied at 8:59 (131 minutes later). There were two other people who expressed interest, but the first guy picked it up tonight at 8:20 (25 hours later).

Let me reiterate that this is for a broken computer from 1999.

I love Craigslist.

(complete post after the break for posterity)
Continue reading

Debrahlee, Double D

Debrahlee Lorenzana has been all over the news for the past week because she is suing Citibank, after being fired for distracting her co-workers (or at least her managers) by being too sexy.

Today my new roommate really moved in. She arrived with a truckload of furniture, and a big new TV. We spent the day setting up the living room to accommodate it. Then we wired up the TV and started testing. A friend, curious about available channels, tuned in Discovery Health, which I’d never heard of. As it turns out, it’s the sort of channel that profiles people undergoing plastic surgery … you can guess where this is going.

One of the people on the program was none other than Debrahlee Lorenzana, at age 26. She wanted to get her D-size breast implants enlarged to size DD. The surgeon, Dr. Kevah Alizadeh of the Long Island Plastic Surgical Group, talked to her down to a “higher projection” implant that is still nominally size D. I just watched the surgery (minimally invasive, quite impressive).

After surgery, she was less than pleased, saying that they weren’t big enough. She’s quite specific throughout that she wants to look “like a Playboy playmate” in order to snag and hold the (rich attractive older professional) man of her dreams.

Having carefully examined of the extensive published photography accompanying her press coverage, I believe that she’s telling the truth when she says

The reality is, I’m a size 32 DD. I’m very skinny, and then I have curves.

That indicates at least one subsequent enlargement, or three separate surgeries in total.

Ms. Lorenzana is now 33 years old. That means the episode must have been filmed 7 years ago, roughly in 2003, based on her stated age. The probability of that show being aired this week at random seems… low. Almost surely, then, someone at Discovery Health recognized her name in the news. I imagine that they considered contacting the press, decided it was against corporate policy, and then had the brilliant idea to just schedule the episode as a rerun instead.

Maybe they even hoped that some blogger would notice and write it up.

Incidentally, Ms. Lorenzana is still unmarried, so her persistent investment in surgery doesn’t seem to have worked quite as well as one might have hoped. We’ll see if litigation provides her a better return.


I had lunch at The Dosa Factory. I didn’t know what a Dosa was, exactly, but I ordered one anyway. It turned out to be something like a burrito served on a comically oversized tortilla. I pronounced it far too big for one meal, and promptly devoured the whole thing.

My friend bought a “Limca” soda, which came in a glass bottle. In small print, its label says “Bottle for beverage use only.”.

Ice Cream for Dinner

After work this evening I attended the Jimmy Fund Scooper Bowl fund raiser. The idea is simple: pay $8 (to charity!), then feast on as much ice cream as you want.

The event runs all week in a quadrant of the plaza outside Government Center. There are about 9 different ice cream vendors, each with about 4 flavors to choose from, served as mini-scoops in individual cups. The cups stack neatly, leading naturally to a competition within any group to see who can acquire the most. I ended up with 14 in total; the “winner” (I use the term very loosely) reached 26.

It was a fun event, with friends, and it seemed like everyone I knew was there. I went with one group of friends and bumped into two others. The crowds made getting to the ice cream a bit tricky, but there were generally no lines. We stayed around for a while after we were full, then walked back across the river.

The ice cream was great, but not really exciting. Of the 30+ flavors, there were probably at least 3 vanillas and 5 chocolates. Most of the flavors were mild, with low concentrations of “extras” like nuts. Strong, unusual varieties were basically absent.

There was a live band, which was sort of amusing. They were clearly very good, and singing songs that I generally enjoy … but the context was all wrong. Aggressive overdriven emo/punk rock, entertaining as it may be, is out of place at an afternoon ice cream fundraiser.

Foreign Languages

While I was in Sweden there was an active advertising campaign whose tagline was some variant of “Would you sell your mother?” and a link to This seemed to be a sort of “mystery campaign”, where the company doing the advertising doesn’t identify itself, and instead directs the viewer to a website for more information. The tactic is common enough in the US, too. The “Now What?” TV ads last year, showing humorous incidents of expensive damage to property, are a recent example (they turned out to be placed by an insurance company).

The “Sell Your Mother” ads are not too secretive about their true identity; they are advertising Sprite, indicating that it is so desirable that one might potentially sell one’s mother in order to obtain it. This is not what I would call an inspired ad campaign, and in a way that’s what’s interesting about it.

Virtually everyone in Sweden seems to speak at least some English, and in Stockholm the majority speak it quite well. Nonetheless, the language of the city is Swedish, and the Sprite advertisements stand out for being written in English. I imagine the decision to advertise in English is attributable in part to the perception of Sprite as an American brand, but I think there’ s something subtler going on. By advertising in English, Sprite exploits what I’ll call the Second Language Effect.

What I’m trying to describe is a common pattern: people often have a dramatically lower standard for artistry in a second language. This applies to music, theater, poetry, literature … and advertising. My best example is myself. My second language is Spanish, and I am a total aficionado of Spanish-language music, film, and literature (e.g. Orishas, Pedro Almodóvar, Jorge Luis Borges). I might even say that I like them, respectively, better than Fifty Cent, Steven Soderbergh, and Edgar Allen Poe. Would I like them as much if they were working from within my culture, in my language? I suspect not. If I could better comprehend the nuance of the words, maybe I would find them poorly chosen. If I were more familiar with the language and culture, I might find cliché instead of novelty. If I weren’t spending all effort on translation, maybe I would be more apt to notice plot holes or inadequate delivery. The list of possible mechanisms is very long.

I suspect a similar effect operates in Sweden, and Europe generally, with regard to English. The tendency is most famously expressed in Euro-dance songs of the 1980s and 1990s, with their awful English lyrics. Off the top of my head, I can think of “Ra Ra Rasputin” and all of ABBA. Then again, those songs also achieved huge popularity among native English speakers. That, I cannot explain. Maybe it’s something about the round trip, a double second language effect. See also: Shakira.

There’s another piece of the Second Language Effect, though, which I find even more intriguing. People are much less likely to be offended in a foreign language. They are able to discuss subjects (like selling one’s mother) which are distinctly off-putting in the native tongue. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, writes about Korean airline pilots who, hamstrung by a culture of hierarchical address, switch to English (a second language) because it allows them to communicate bluntly without fear of offense. There are topics that one can only comfortably discuss in a second language.

I wonder whether a common second language can be a mechanism for positive social change, simply because it enables people to make good use of the Second Language Effect.


Yesterday was, like, my seventh time singing with the Chorallaries at MIT Commencement. We sing the national anthem at the beginning, and the school song at the end. In between is about two hours, which happened to coincide almost exactly with my lab meeting. I ended up biking to MIT to sing, then to work just barely in time for the monthly meeting, then back to MIT just barely in time to sing again, then home to pick up some documents before biking back to work.

This commencement is interesting because it marks the graduation of the class who entered after I graduated. Another whole cycle has completed. I have now been a Harvard student longer than I was an MIT student.


One of my roommates moved out this week, and a new one is moving in next week. To celebrate, we cleaned the fridge.

Fridge cleaning is most natural at the transition when a roommate moves out. The fridge is full of food of unknown provenance that must be claimed or discarded, lest it remain indefinitely. The total quantity of food is at a minimum, requiring the least effort to empty for cleaning. The old roommates want to make a good first impression on the new, and a smelly fridge with an unidentifiable rubbery/powdery residue just won’t do.

I kind of wish roommate transitions happened in January, though. Then we could just open the windows and not worry about the frozen goods melting. Instead we have to work with speed to ensure that nothing spoils (well, nothing that isn’t already an extraterrestrial mold colony).

In the process of cleaning we introduced a complete reorganization, with specified areas for common and individual food, which I predict will last for about two weeks. With three roommates, and a refrigerator that is not divisible by 3, it’s very difficult to resolve ambiguity about who owns food.


I found a free minute to take out my flat rear tube and look at it. The leak was a small hole at the edge of the valve stem disc, the circle of reinforced rubber surrounding the metal valve. The two points at the edge of this disk, along the inside of the tube, seem to be especially high-stress locations, permanently thinning the rubber at least on my mountain bike, and most of my flats seem to occur there. Today, I decided to try an experiment. I stuck a glueless “instapatch” over the leak, and also over its mirror image on the far side of the valve stem. Then I reinflated.

When I got to about 50 PSI I heard a loud “poh!” and whooshing. I took the tube back out of the tire and looked at the patches. On the side with the leak, the pressure had popped a hole right through the patch.

I would upgrade to higher-strength tubes, if I knew of any. Plenty of companies sell “thorn-resistant” tubes, but that’s not quite the same thing. Something about the geometry here is actually stressing my tubes, at this one special location, to the point of tearing.

I have one more tube in this size. I’m going to try patching it preemptively, as an experiment.


Our lab is full of oscilloscopes, and yet somehow there are never quite enough. Nowadays oscilloscopes are lightweight, roughly laptop-size devices, so it’s easy to move them from experiment to experiment according to demand. Today, when I wanted to use a scan tank, its oscilloscope was missing, and they were all basically in use.

In addition to the usual pool of scopes, there’s also a small elephant graveyard of ancient oscilloscopes, with monochrome CRT screens, heavy enough to be built into their own carts. For the most part these are ignored, but as I glanced over the pile today I realized that at least one of them is much more modern than it appears. The green monochrome CRT, unchanged in 50 years, displays a digital menu interface when turned on. The back side of the scope has the full complement of connectors for interfacing with an acquisition computer. I wheeled the beast over to a disused fishtank (the lab is full of fishtanks, but no fish), hooked it up to the control computer, and quickly tweaked my MATLAB script to make use of it. It’s ugly, but for my purposes absolutely adequate.

Bonus: no one is going to try to borrow it.


Back in Boston after a really lovely, relaxing weekend. Today’s Picnic was exactly as it should be, and the drive home was easy and devoid of traffic.

I’m kind of excited to go to lab tomorrow, which feels really good. I spent all last week building a new transducer. I’ve rehoused salvaged transducers before, but this is the first time I’ve built one starting with nothing but a bare piezo “crystal”. I tested it informally right before leaving last week, and it seems to be nice and broad-band, which is what I wanted. Tomorrow I’ll start characterizing its sound-field precisely, getting ready to try to use it for motion tracking.